FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan assesses whether Bangkok United are likely to go the distance or flatter to deceive in the Thai League 1 title race this season.
Ask anyone remotely familiar with Thai football about some of its biggest clubs and they would likely be able to name-drop Buriram United, Muangthong United and possibly Chonburi.
After all, these are the teams that have dominated Thai League 1 in recent times, with the former two sharing a stranglehold on the title for the past decade (Buriram with six wins to Muangthong’s four).
Not for the first time in the past few years, however, an exciting side brimming with quality individuals is promising to upset the balance if only they can find the consistency to last a 34-game campaign.
— Mika chunuonsee (@Chunuonsee16) May 10, 2018
And, if their recent form is anything to go by, Bangkok United could genuinely be title contenders in 2018.
To begin with, let’s look at what is so good about them.
For one, they are arguably the only team with a squad capable of matching it with the equally star-studded Buriram and Muangthong.
Even without focusing on their quintet of foreigners, Bangkok United have 11 Thailand internationals – past and present – at their disposal, including famous names like Mika Chunuonsee, Teeratep Winothai and Pokklaw Anan.
Then, in a league renowned for clubs’ impatience with their managerial staff – the 2018 season has already seen 12 managerial changes after just 14 rounds – the Angels have kept faith with coach Mano Polking since appointing him in 2014.
Four years does seem like an eternity in the ASEAN football’s cutthroat environment but Polking has plenty of experience in Thailand since he was national team assistant to Winfried Schafer, and is renowned for how much his players are willing to give him their all on the pitch.
Since 2015, Bangkok United have never finished outside the top five in T1 and were the closest challengers to Muangthong the following year – finishing five points behind the eventual champions and a staggering 18 ahead of third-placed Bangkok Glass.
So, what has been stopping them from going on to win their first title since 2006 (under their previous guise as Bangkok University)?
Quite simply, at least for last season when they finished third, their woeful defensive record.
Despite boasting the league’s most-potent attack with a staggering 97 goals (12 more than second-best Buriram), they leaked 57 goals – a tally that was bettered even by 6th-from-bottom Navy (for the record, Buriram conceded just 22).
And, for a while, 2018 looked like it was going to unfold in exactly the same way.
From when they threw away a two-goal lead in an opening-day 3-2 loss to Muangthong, Bangkok United conceded 14 goals in their first eight matches as they picked up a decent 12 points from a possible 24.
Since then, however, Polking has masterminded a remarkable turnaround that has seen them let in just three times in six matches, with goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard and his defence notching four clean sheets along the way.
The biggest reward from this improvement? They are now just two points behind leaders Buriram and – with a five-point lead over their closest challengers – are promising to add the excitement of a two-horse race this season, compared to 2017 when the Thunder Castle won the title by 14 points.
Obviously, there is still a long way to go from now till the end of the season but, if they can maintain this defensive resilience, then it bodes really well for them considering they have lost none of their attacking verve and panache.
In particular, lynchpin Sumanya Purisay is enjoying something of a renaissance almost five years on from when he won the last of his 13 caps for Thailand.
Despite being deployed as a traditional central midfielder, the 31-year-old as currently Bangkok United’s top scorer with eight goals and each of his strikes have either been sublime or crucial.
Congratulations to True Bangkok United midfielder #SumanyaPurisai on wining the Toyota Thai League Player of the Month award for April !!! 🎉🥇👏
— ThaiLeague (@thaileague) May 10, 2018
Add in the likes of anchorman Anthony Ampaipitakwong, who happily goes about performing the thankless tasks in the engine room, centre-back Everton – one of the most underrated foreigners in the league – and livewire Vander Luiz, and you have a team full of players who all know what their role is and are prepared to carry it out to perfection.
The main question now is whether Bangkok United have the necessary know-how it takes to win the league.
When push comes to shove and the pressure is on, will they have the guile and killer instinct required to grind out victories and continue inching closer to the finish line?
Only time will tell.
But, for now, Polking and his charges look the closest thing we have seen to new Thai League 1 champions – other than Buriram and Muangthong – in a decade.
Photo credit: Bangkok United FC