Sukhothai vs Yadanarbon: Battling to face cash-rich Shanghai

There will be plenty of AFC Champions League qualifiers played over the next few days but the outcome of this particular match will give the victors a chance to face Hulk and others... 

Both teams are quietly confident ahead of this AFC Champions League qualifier tomorrow night in Thailand, where to the victors go the spoils of a glamorous play-off match against Shanghai SIPG and its multi-dollar talent including Brazilians Hulk and Oscar.

Sukhothai FC might well consider themselves the luckiest team in the Asian Champions League.

Sukhothai FC might well consider themselves the luckiest team in the Asian Champions League

When the remaining three matches were cancelled out of respect for the death of the Thai king on 13 October last year, Sukhothai were sailing at an all-time high of seventh in the Toyota Thai League, or T1, with 45 points.

They lagged some 35 points behind leaders Muangthong United, who were proclaimed winners of the division and automatic qualifier for the AFC Champions League groups stages.

Second at the time in the T1 were Bangkok United; declared runners-up and qualified for the play-offs as a result, as would Thailand’s third entry, the Cup Winners.

However, as the Thai FA Cup was still only at the semi-final stage when all fixtures were canceled, the Thai Football Association announced that a lottery would be held. Sukhothai won, and suddenly found themselves in the unlikely qualifiers for the Champions League.

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Sukhotha fortuitously made it to the ACL play-offs

Myanmar champions Yadanarbon are also playing for prestige. No Burmese side has qualified for the group stages since the 1960s.

The Mandalay team knows this could be their best chance. The Thais may have home advantage, but Yadanarbon have much greater international experience with eight of their first-team regulars in the Myanmar national side.

Englishman Jason Withe is Director of Football at Sukhothai. He told FourFourTwo his players will not be taking Yadanarbon for granted.

Any team who finishes champions of their domestic league is a serious threat

- Jason White

“Any team who finishes champions of their domestic league is a serious threat,” he said. “In the last three years they have finished 2nd and won the league twice.

“They have AFC experience which we don't have. Yadanarbon also has an experienced coach in René Desaeyere who knows the Thai game and players very well from his experience at Muangthong, Bec Tero Sasana, and Suphanburi.

“Last season they went on a 17-game unbeaten run, so this isn't a game we are taking lightly.”

Withe added: “Nevertheless, we have a great home support, and I'm sure this will spur us on in our first venture into an AFC competition.” 

Zin Maung, the sports correspondent for DVB TV in Yangon, told FourFourTwo that most Burmese football fans will be expecting Yadanarbon to win.

Yadanarbon is usually an attacking team and is well-organized. However, playing in Thailand, they will probably play a 4-4-2 formation and rely on counter-attacks through Aung Thu and midfielder Myo Ko Tun

- Zin Maung

“With eight international players, Yadanarbon have the experience, while Sukhothai is a recently promoted team to this level of football,” he said.

“Yadanarbon is usually an attacking team and is well-organized. However, playing in Thailand, they will probably play a 4-4-2 formation and rely on counter-attacks through Aung Thu and midfielder Myo Ko Tun.”

Aung Thu will probably play up front alongside Win Naing Soe, who was the joint-top goalscorer in the Burmese national league last season, tied with teammate Keith Nah. Liberian Nah has since moved on from Yadanarbon, which will come as a relief to Sukhothai fans.

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Aung Thu was a star for Myanmar at the AFF Suzuki Cup. Photo: Yadanarbon

As for Sukhothai, Director of Football Jason Withe reckons they will also pose threats on the break.

“We are very strong on either side from Baggio and Bireme who have plenty of pace, and with the attacking threat of Admir Adrović who gives us an aerial threat,” he said.

So all signs point to a cautious opening half with both sides hoping to cut through each other’s defense through quick thinking and breakaway speed.

Perhaps the deciding factor will be match fitness. The Burmese league is already underway and Yadanarbon are early leaders with two wins and a draw, while Sukhothai is just returning from a three-month hiatus.

Whoever wins at the Thalay Luang Stadium goes on to a play-off match on February 7 in front of a 56,000-capacity at the Shanghai Stadium against SIPG, which is now coached by former Tottenham Hotspur boss André Villas-Boas.

In a warm-up game last week they succumbed 5-0 to domestic league champions Muangthong. Clearly the central Thai team will need to be vastly improved if they expect to prevail.

Whoever wins at the Thalay Luang Stadium goes on to a play-off match on February 7 in front of a 56,000-capacity at the Shanghai Stadium against SIPG, which is now coached by former Tottenham Hotspur boss André Villas-Boas.

Shanghai SIPG, you will remember, recently signed former Chelsea midfielder Oscar for an astounding $UK52 million – yes, that’s right, nearly $100 million dollars – which unsurprisingly means he is valued higher than both Sukhothai and Yadanarbon teams put together.