Since the restructuring of the country’s top flight of football, which recently acquired the new name of Thai League One, SCG Muang Thong United and Buriram United are the only two teams to have lifted the coveted trophy, winning the crown four times each.
Once again, the two giants will enter the fray as pre-season favourites with a few others pretending to be genuine contenders, a handful of clubs attempting to look relevant and the rest praying to avoid the drop.
Muang Thong are banking on an army of Thailand internationals and portraying their title bid as a “War of Heroes”, while arch rivals Buriram are turning their desire to “Strike Back” into a rallying cry.
Defending champions Muang Thong have become stronger financially thanks to a new deal with their main sponsor, SCG.
Muang Thong coach Totchtawan Sripan has a large number of international players at his disposal, including skipper Teerasil Dangda, Thailand’s top striker who forms a lethal partnership with Brazilian Cleiton Silva, the top scorer in the league last year.
Other key Thailand internationals in Muang Thong’s ranks are Theerathon Bunmathan, who moved from Buriram United in the second half of last season, and Chanathip ‘Messi Jay’ Songkrasin.
However, Chanathip will play for the Kirins only in first leg and will join J-League team Consodole Sapporo in July on an 18-month loan deal.
Tristan Do, one of the best right-backs in the country, is still with the team and so are Peerapat Notechaiya, Adisorn Promrak, Adisak Kraisorn, Sarach Yooyen, Kawin Thamsatchanan and Mongkol Totsakrai.
Despite letting Thailand defender Tanaboon Kesarat go to Chiang Rai United for a record B50-million fee, the Kirins are still a formidable team.
New foreign players to have joined the club are former South Korea international Lee Ho from Asian champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Brazilian defender Celio Santos from Ulsan Hyundai.
Muang Thong president Pongsak Pol-Anan said: “We had a successful season last year, but it has handed us the difficult task of defending the title.
“We aim to win all three domestic competitions [the Thai League, FA Cup and League Cup]. We will also play in the AFC Champions League and want to become a top Asian side. It will be a challenging and exciting season for us.”
Club Director Ronnarit Suewaja explained that the theme “War of Heroes” refers to national players who play for Muang Thong United and are all revered by the Thais.
On paper, the Kirins have a good chance of retaining their Thai League title, but their participation in the group stage of the AFC Champions League (ACL) could take its toll on their key players.
Muang Thong, the only Thai team left in the ACL this season, are in Group E along with J-League champions Kashima Antlers and qualifiers Brisbane Roar of Australia and South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai. They play their first game against Brisbane on Feb 21.
A strong challenge is expected from four-time champions Buriram United. The Thunder Castle had a disappointing run last year and they seem desperate to “Strike Back”.
They finished fourth in the Thai League behind Muang Thong United, Bangkok United and Bangkok Glass in the 2016 season.
Buriram’s only silverware last year was the League Cup, which they had to share with bitter foes Muang Thong after all local football matches were called off to mourn the death of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Oct 13.
They are hoping to salvage their lost pride under Serbian coach Ranko Popovic, who joined the team in August last year.
They have signed some new players including Brazilian midfielder Rogerio Coutinho from leading United Arab Emirates club Al Wasi.
Brazilian Diogo Luis Santo remains their main striker.
Buriram President Newin Chidchob is predicting that this year his team will perform “much better than last season”.
The Thunder Castle have lost Venezuela defender Andres Tunez, who has joined Spanish club Elche on a six-month loan, and twins Surat and Suree Sukha, who have moved to promoted Ubon UMT United.
With a sum of B300 million in the bank, more signings by Buriram United seem to be on the cards.
Chiang Rai United have shot into prominence after paying a princely sum for Tanaboon and many are seeing them as one of the title contenders this season.
They have spent about B300 million to rebuild the team and new arrivals include a quartet of Brazilians: Henrique Silva from Australia’s Adelaide United, Rafael Coelho from Goa in India, Felipe Azevedo from Ponte Preta (Brazil), and Vander Luiz Silva Vitoria from El Salvador.
Their coach is Alexander Gama, who led Buriram to the Thai League title in 2015.
Last year’s runners-up Bangkok United are also hoping to win the Thai League this season.
However, they had an unremarkable start to the year as they were knocked out of contention for the ACL group stage in the second play-off round, losing to Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim in a penalty shoot-out.
Bangkok United have strengthened the squad by adding Pokklaw A-Nan from Chonburi and Portuguese defender Yohan Tavares from Estoril in Portugal.
Bangkok United chairman Kajorn Chearavanont is expecting his team to claim their first ever major trophy this year.
Chonburi, one of the best Thai League teams, finished 2016 empty-handed and settled for fifth place in the league. Their best effort last year was reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
The Sharks will be chasing a top-four finish this year after acquiring Renan Marques from Sukhothai. Marques will team up with Fode Diakite, who has returned to Chonburi after spending two seasons at BEC Tero Sasana, who have changed their name to Police Tero.
Therdsak Chaiman will continue to be the player-coach of Chonburi despite some indifferent results under his stewardship last year.
Among the dark horses are Bangkok Glass, who have spent B150 million to prepare their team, and Ratchaburi.
Sukhothai had a good season last year, but their dreams of making the group stage of this year’s ACL were mercilessly shattered by big-spending Chinese club Shanghai SIPG this week.
Police Tero are the product of a recent merger between Police United and BEC Tero Sasana with National Police Chief Chakthip Chaijinda being a co-chairman.
With an available budget of B100 million, they are expecting to finish among the top four this year.
Suphanburi have never looked like genuine title contenders and that perception sticks to the club this year as well.
They have recently signed former Thailand international Anawin Jujeen from Buriram United to join their two other national team players, Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakool and Charyl Chappuis.
Newcomers Ubon UMT United look capable of springing a few surprises.
They have built a new 6,000-seat stadium and have an impressive budget of B200 million.
Their key player will be Thailand striker Sirod Chatthong, who scored two goals in the second leg of the Suzuki Cup final last year to help the country beat Indonesia.
Si Sa Ket will be once again trying to convince everyone that they belong to the top flight and so will be Nakhon Ratchasima.
Port are celebrating their quick return to the Thai League One with a lofty aim of finishing among the top 10 with the help of Thailand striker Tana Chanaboot and their new singing, Brazilian midfielder Sergio Suarez, from Songkhla United.
Super Power Samut Prakarn, backed by popular rocker Sek Loso, should be content if they are able to avoid relegation at the end of the season.
Under coach Chalermwut Sanga-pol, The Power could become a popular side as the club plan to ask Sek to help lure fans to the stadium.
Navy and Pattaya United, along with newcomers Thai-Honda Ladkrabang, will be facing tough battles to prolong their stay in the top flight.
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