Thailand’s powerhouse Buriram United went 44 games unbeaten in the Thai Premier League before finally losing to Muangthong recently. It is just but one loss, but it could lead to something more, John Duerden says...
A month after the most significant result in the recent history of the Thailand national team, came the most significant result in the recent history of the Premier League of Thailand. On Wednesday evening, Buriram United finally lost a league game after an incredible run of 44 matches without defeat, stretching back to October 2014.
And it gets worse. Not only did Buriram lose, not only did Buriram lose at home for the first time since 2012, but Buriram lost 3-0 to bitter rivals Muangthong United in what could be a season-defining game.
Fans at the Thai I-Mobile Stadium sat dumbstruck as the Thunder Castles chased shadows left by the sharp, repeated thrusts of the visitors.
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Compounding the situation, Buriram had never before lost to their rivals in the league. In 12 previous meetings, it was won four, drawn eight and lost none. No longer.
First, the facts: the Kirins were two goals up inside the first quarter of an hour.
Brazilian striker Cleiton Silva headed the visitors ahead after just nine minutes. Soon after, Adisak Kraisorn made it two. Eight minutes before the break, Cleiton got his second and his team's third.
Try as they might, Buriram just could not get back in the game.
It was a crushing defeat for Buriram, a team that has won four of the past five league titles. It was a delight for Muangthong, a team that has almost always come off second best against the northeasterners on the pitch and in title races.
For the hosts, it adds to recent uncertainty.
After good performances in the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015, hopes were high that this year would see a second-ever appearance in the knockout stage. Such a feat would cement the Thunder Castles' place as an Asian powerhouse for a team already regarded as Southeast Asia's best.
But so far it has been a disaster. Five games in a tough, but not impossible, group have resulted in five defeats. It started with a 6-0 loss at home to FC Seoul and hasn’t improved. Defensively this was nothing like the 2015 version, with organisation and discipline severely lacking. Going forward, there was little to write home about.
It had taken years for a Southeast Asian team to convince the rest of Asia, the rest of the region and crucially themselves, that they deserved to stand proud in the continent's upper echelons, shoulder to shoulder with rivals from South Korea, Japan and China. It's back to square one in that regard.
At least there was the domestic arena, and there still is. Buriram have been going well at home. Other teams have been setting the early pace but the champions have been picking up points and still sit just behind the leaders, ready to make their move. Even with the defeat, Buriram sit in fourth, just two points off first and one behind Muangthong.
Yet it remains to be seen how the game affects the club psychologically. After the Asian debacle and a shocking loss at home, the pressure is on coach Alexandre Gama.
The Brazilian has delivered trophies and was in charge when the unbeaten run started, but now needs to show that he can cajole his team to bounce back from failures in Asia and setbacks at home. Fortunately, the weekend brings a game against the hapless bottom club BBCU. Nothing less than victory will do.
There are other issues. Buriram struggle for star power compared to Muangthong.
OK, they have international names such as Theerathon Bunmathan, Narubadin Weerawatnodom and Jakkaphan Kaewprom but lack the firepower and excitement of their rivals in attack as the fact their top scorer is Venezuelan defender Andres Tunez demonstrates.
Muangthong have the increasingly influential Sarach Yooyen in midfield (and fans will be hoping his injury late in the game will not prove to be too serious), goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan and striker Adisak Kraisorn. And they have much more.
There is Teerasil Dangda, Thailand's hugely popular striker, and there is also Chanathip Songkrasin. Chanathip is the biggest star in Southeast Asia. He sparkled on Wednesday, dancing around the flat-footed Buriram defence to cause all sorts of problems and create chances for others.
'Messi Jay' may still lack a little consistency and may too often make the wrong decision but he is only 22. And he is a player who gets fans on their feet when his feet make contact with the ball. Buriram don't have the same.
It is easy to read too much into one game but the result, coming after an unbeaten run of 44 games, is significant in its own right and could prove to be even more so for the future.
The questions are many: what does this do for the confidence of the two teams? Has Buriram's sheen of domestic invincibility been removed and, if so, will other teams pay less respect and attack more? Does a first ever win in this league fixture give Muangthong the confidence to go and take back the title last won in 2012? Will the setback inspire or deflate the defending champions?
Only time will tell, but the Premier League of Thailand just got a little bit more interesting.