Thailand's resurgence could yet be a good thing for Singapore and Malaysia, John Duerden explains as Bangkok Glass take on Beijing Guoan for a spot in the AFC Champions League on Tuesday.
Watching Hariss Harun watching Johor Darul Ta'zim's game with Bangkok Glass on Tuesday pass him by, it was not hard to come to a convenient conclusion that Singapore's biggest talent perhaps moved to the wrong league.
Conclusions can be dangerous things when they are based on 90 minutes, especially at the home of the victors. Yet when a mid-table Thai Premier League team beat the big-spending champions of the Malaysian Super League with such ease in an important Asian Champions League play-off (3-0 and it could have been more), at least a quizzical eyebrow should be raised in the direction of the midfielder and the Lion City in general.
Things are afoot in Thai football. We saw this at the AFF Suzuki Cup. A young team led by a young coach playing exciting football and what's more, enjoying playing exciting football. Teams like Buriram United and Muangthong United are now well-known across Asia and others like Chonburi, Bangkok United and BEC Tero Sasana have plenty of ambition.
It's all good news for Singapore. Having a strong Southeast Asia is in everyone's interest and while some nations have looked like being able to challenge on a continental level before but ultimately been unable to do so, the signs in Thailand are promising. Thailand and Malaysia look like they are moving in the right direction and Singapore needs to grab on to these coat-tails.
Bangkok's victory over JDT was masterminded by new coach, Ricardo Rodriguez. Two hours before kickoff, the Spaniard, appointed just weeks previously, had poured himself into a large beanbag in his office, looking through the floor-to-ceiling window into Leo Stadium in the far northern reaches of the sprawling metropolis. If the 40 year-old was almost zen-like in his calm then the players, a little nervous early on, were soon in serene control of this penultimate play-off.
“We are trying to introduce a more tactical Spanish way of playing here,” he said. After the game, he was obviously delighted with the result and especially the performance. “The goal calmed us down and from then we played the way we wanted to play, controlled the tempo and looked dangerous. We scored three but could have scored more against a good team.” If the rest of the season plays out anything like this, then Glass fans are in for a treat. This was intelligent football.
And it was something that Hariss and JDT had no answer to. Yet, there were a few excuses for the visitors and coach Bojan Hodak made them by not making them. The Croatian said that the artificial pitch and the five missing players were not to blame for the defeat and was complimentary about the victors, calling it a one-sided match. That was hard to dispute as was his statement that JDT need more of these kind of games. More debatable was the assertion that there was no pressure on the Malaysians as this was a first foray in this tournament so it was just a question of seeing how far they could go.
It's true to an extent. To get to the Asian Champions League group stage proper would be seen as a significant achievement. Johor have spent plenty of money but there is still a major learning curve that has to be negotiated. To fail to qualify is no disgrace but the comprehensive nature of the defeat was sobering. Talking to fans after the game, they said that a two-legged affair and a large crowd back at the Larkin would have been a different story yet having two legs works both ways. While play-offs should be home and away whenever possible, the same fans should be relieved that last week's game against Bengalaru was a single encounter. JDT struggled to get past the Indians on home soil and a trip to the subcontinent for a return match would not have been relished.
Regardless, they were second best in Bangkok. Thailand's top teams are full of their national team talent and club coaches have talked of how it is their duty to help the Elephants improve. This is a two-way street. A close relationship between a national team and the league is always good but it becomes strong when both are in fine shape and share some of the same vision.
Bangkok Glass have local talent but the foreign players made a big difference, none of whom are major stars yet but work well in the system. Striker Lazarus Kaimbi of Namibia and Macedonia's Darko Tasevski made things happen in attack. And then there's Matt Smith. Last season, Bangkok finished as top scorers in the league yet ended in tenth. No secret then, that defensive issues held them back. The English-born Australian defender, playing in an unfamiliar holding role in midfield, was impressive, not so much with what he did with the ball but what he did without it. “A second coach” was one remark as he organised the backline with the kind of leadership that the rabbits clearly needed in 2014. Bangkok did not have to break the bank for any of their foreign players.
They will need all that and more in Beijing in the final play-off. A young and ambitious Spanish coach, though with plenty of experience on his CV, wants to make a difference and he has a real chance to do so by beating Beijing Guoan on Tuesday. There is little pressure as nobody expects anything on what promises to be a red-hot wintry night at the Workers' Stadium. Beijing are regular participants in group and knockout stage of the continental tournament but have yet to play a competitive game this season.
Singapore and Malaysia should cheer on the Thais in their tough task in the Chinese capital. A win there, though unlikely, would be a major feather in the cap of the whole of Southeast Asian football. It would be good for all of the region. If mid-table Thai teams can go to China and win, then it would not only show that the country is a force to be reckoned with but that it could be a great testing ground for Singapore talent.
Photos: Bangkok Glass FC Facebook