Chanathip proving his worth in Japan

Scott McIntyre reflects on the Thai star’s growing reputation and influence during his second season in the J.League.

As the hype around his move to Japan has slowly died down the man himself has quietly gone about establishing his reputation as one of the leading Southeast Asian exports in recent times and a stunning goal from Thailand star Chanathip Songkrasin at the weekend has only enhanced those claims.

Few here in Japan refer to the diminutive playmaker, as he often is elsewhere, with the erroneous ‘Thai Messi’ tag, his hair has grown slightly longer and these days he plays with a far stronger physical edge to his game.

It’s the extra element of productivity though in his second season in Japan that’s been the most impressive component of what was hoped – and has proven to be – a growth and evolution of a player who came armed with all the raw technical tools.

Speaking on the J-Talk Podcast earlier in the season, former England international Jay Bothroyd argued it was assists and goals that had to be the target for his teammate this season if he wanted to be considered a leading attacking midfielder and in recent times Chanathip has started to deliver.

Playing alongside another creative playmaker in the on-loan Kawasaki attacking midfielder, Koji Miyoshi, as the side’s two ‘number tens’ in Sapporo’s 3-4-3 setup, Chanathip is tasked with both creating for Bothroyd and Miyoshi as well as bringing goals into his own repertoire and all those qualities were highlighted again this weekend in a 1-1 draw at home to ACL side Cerezo Osaka.

He was engaged in a running midfield battle with the powerful Brazilian Souza where he didn’t take a step backwards and was at his usual busy self, drifting wide and then centrally – always wanting to be on the ball and looking to keep recycling possession.

It was the stunning first half strike though that will rightly grab the attention as, a minute after Sapporo had fallen behind to a sixth minute goal, he did fantastically well to control a lofted ball headed from the left side of the pitch on his right foot, immediately switch it to his left and in the one motion lash home past one of the J.League’s best keepers in Kim Jin-hyeon.

That was his fifth goal in just 18 appearances and showed just why the club took the steps last month to turn his loan move from Muangthong into a permanent transfer. With several European clubs already taking a keen interest in his progress in Japan it could also be smart business for the northern side in the future.

Sapporo have a real advantage over other clubs in the division in being able to play their home matches in the controlled environment of the Sapporo Dome, but equally that’s a drawback when they leave their home and travel south where it’s been one of the warmest Japanese summers in many years.

The challenge now for Chanathip is how he adapts to what will be a brutal run of fixtures due to the World Cup and upcoming Asian Cup seeing the league forced to play a string of midweek matches.

Starting last weekend, Sapporo are now on a run of seven matches in just four weeks and with widespread travel also involved this will be another key chance for Chanathip to show his qualities as he aims to be the centrepiece for the Thailand national side at both the Suzuki Cup (should he be released) and then the Asian Cup in January.

Much of the hype from those who don’t watch the 24-year-old regularly has been way over the top – he’s not one of the best players in Asia, he’s not the best player in Japan and he’s not even the best player on his own team.

What he is though is a key component of a club that’s pushing hard to book an ACL spot for next season, a highly regarded and humble ambassador for his country

Speaking at the end of the match where he was pressed twice to describe his goal he admitted it was a nice effort but said that the most important thing was trying to fight for the result for his team.

It’s that attitude, combined with a growing influence and impact on matches that’s seen the Thai star’s reputation continue to rise and if he continues on this path then it might not be too long before he becomes the first Thai player to be on the radar of a major European club for a long time.