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ACL Writers' Chat: FC Seoul vs. Chiangrai United

FC Seoul and Chiangrai United meet for the first time in Tuesday’s ACL clash. The “home team” will hope to get their ACL campaign back on track following defeat to Beijing Sinobo Guoan while the reigning Thai champions are looking to pick up their first-ever ACL points. Simon Farnsworth and Gian Chansrichawla (co-founder of Thai League Central) had a virtual chat about the game. 

AFC Asian Champions League: Group E
Venue: Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, Doha
Kick off: 22:00 KST, November 24
(Image from kleague.faphotos.co.kr)

Gian Chansrichawla Asks, Simon Farnsworth Answers 

Gian Chansrichawla: From an outsider’s perspective, FC Seoul look fairly inconsistent, as their third-place finish in 2019 came between two bottom-half finishes. What is the reason for this? 

Simon Farnsworth: It's been a rollercoaster, that's for sure! It's hard to pinpoint the exact "problem", but it's mainly been a combination of disasterclass tactics from the men in the dugout, a missing cutting edge on the pitch, and a lack of vision from those in charge of recruitment. 

Choi Yong-soo stepped down in July after a series of genuinely terrible performances, and the club is yet to appoint a permanent successor. Recruitment has, on the whole, been woeful. Seoul took a huge swing and a miss by bringing Adriano back this season. They then failed to sign a striker during the summer transfer window when it was evident to just about everyone that one was desperately needed.  

GC: Who are the key players to watch from FC Seoul? 

SF: There's no denying that it's been a pretty horrific season for FC Seoul, but the squad has a good blend of talented youngsters and experienced pros to keep an eye on. (What's missing is a manager who can inspire this group to reach their potential!) 

South Korean U23 international Cho Young-wook is arguably the pick of the bunch. He's a pacy winger that loves to burst forward. I wouldn't be surprised to see him become a K League star next season. He's primed for a big campaign. Han Seung-gyu was undoubtedly Seoul’s best player this season. The on-loan Jeonbuk man has often been Seoul’s only creative spark. He can produce something out of nothing, and every Seoul fan hopes the club can somehow make his loan permanent. 

GC: Thai League fans are obviously familiar with Osmar Ibanez, who was a key player and fan favourite at Buriram United. However, it looks like he has missed quite a few games this season due to injury. What is his form like currently, and do you think he will be fit and ready to perform at his best for this tournament? 

SF: Osmar is Mr. Seoul. When he plays, the team performs so much better. He missed a chunk of the season through injury - and Seoul really missed his calming presence in the middle of the park. He reads the game so well and is still one of the best midfielders in the league for breaking up attacks from the opposition. Plus, he can really ping the ball around the park. Osmar is fit for the ACL, and his performances will have a big say in how far Seoul go in the tournament. He might not wear the armband, but he's a true leader on and off the pitch. 

GC: What are FC Seoul's expectations for this seasons' Champions League? Do fans expect them to advance beyond the group stage? 

SF: The ACL is somewhat of a free hit for Seoul. Expectations are low after a torrid season where they flirted with relegation for many months. Having said that, Seoul still expects to progress to the knockout stages. Beijing are clear favourites to top Group E, but Seoul should take second place. I can't see Seoul progressing much further, though. While they have the players to play tidy football, they lack a killer instinct. Their attack has been toothless all season, and if you can't score goals, you don't win matches. It's that simple. 

GC: Slightly broader question, but what is the general perception of Thai League sides in Korea?

SF: I would say there's a growing curiosity about the Thai League - not just in Korea but across Asian football. There's so much potential for football in Thailand and south-east Asia as a whole. We're now seeing some exciting players from the region earn moves to European clubs: Malaysia's Luqman Hakim Shamsudin recently joined Belgium's KV Kortrijk, while his fellow countryman Safawi Rasid moved to Portugal's Portimonense. I doubt it will be long before European scouts turn their attention to the Thai League. Selfishly, I just hope the K League gets to the talent first! 

Simon Farnsworth Asks, Gian Chansrichawla Answers 

Simon Farnsworth: Chiangrai United were crowned champions of last season’s Thai League 1 in dramatic fashion. Was it a surprise to see The Beetles lift the trophy on the final day of the season?  

Gian Chansrichawla: I’d say that Chiangrai’s title win in 2019 was fairly surprising, mostly due to the timing of it. The Beetles announced themselves in Thai football with heavy investment in 2017 and 2018, winning two FA Cups and a League Cup during that time. However, by the time 2019 rolled around, it was looking like their spending was unsustainable and the club were cutting back considerably. They also had a managerial change in the off-season, and many thought a top-four finish was the most they could ask for. However, they managed to keep their cup-winning squad together and used that experience to see off their title challengers. 

It should also be noted that Chiangrai won the league with a 1.93 points per game average, the lowest for any title-winning side in over ten years. The failure of the traditional big teams like Muangthong and Buriram, as well as a mid-season collapse by Port FC and a below-par campaign from Bangkok United, paved the way for them to win the league. However, the players, coach and ownership certainly deserve credit for capitalizing and winning their first-ever title. 

SF: Chiangrai United currently sit second in the Thai League 1 but have played more games than the teams around them. How would you describe their season so far? 

GC: The team had a poor start before the COVID-19 lockdown. However, they seemed to have used the break well and gotten their season back on track. Chiangrai goes into the tournament with an impressive seven wins from their ten post-lockdown games, which helped them jump back into second place. The feat is even more admirable when you consider that the side have been unlucky with injuries this season and have missed some key players during tough stretches of the campaign. 

However, Chiangrai might come into the tournament a bit more fatigued than some of their rivals as they played three games in two weeks to make up for the Thai League matches they will miss while in Qatar. With qualification to next years’ ACL now contingent on finishing in the top four at the end of the seasons’ first leg, the side had to struggle through some high-intensity games in recent weeks. 

SF: Tuesday’s clash will be the first time the sides have met. What can Seoul expect from Chiangrai United? How would you describe their style of play?

GC: Chiangrai play a very functional and pragmatic style even in the Thai League, and I can see that being even more so when facing some of the strongest teams on the continent. I fully expect them to land in Doha and park their plane right in front of the goal for their entire stay. They’ve also got a strong midfield press which works well in the domestic league, since they are more physical than a lot of their competitors, and enough individual talent to swing any Thai League game. However, I don’t see this translating well against teams like Seoul, Melbourne or Beijing, so they’ll probably be forced to sit deep and look to counter. 

SF: From the outside, Chiangrai United seem to have a good mix of promising youngsters and wily old hands. Who are the dangermen that Seoul should keep an eye on?

GC: Assuming Chiangrai can field a full complement of players, there are a few that could be looking to make their name known on the continent. Of the local players, 21-year-old attacker Ekanit Panya made himself known last year with his debut for the senior Thailand squad and will hope to raise his profile even further in Qatar. He has been recovering from a tough injury this season, and is slowly coming back to his best. Other notable names include captain Phitiwat Sukjitthamakul (25) and chief playmaker Siwakorn Tiatrakul (26) - though the latter is yet to find his feet after also coming back from an injury. 

In terms of foreigners, 36-year-old striker Bill Rosimar has been having a renaissance campaign, and his efforts have been rewarded with a three-year contract by the club - something virtually unheard of in Thai football, let alone for a player of his age. Former South Korea international Lee Yong-rae is also worth keeping an eye on for K League fans, especially since he is expected to return to his homeland after this tournament. 

SF: As this is the first time Chiangrai United have reached the ACL group stages, what would constitute a successful ACL campaign? 

GC: When you compare Chiangrai to the previous Thai sides which were able to make a big impact on the competition - namely Buriram in 2014-15 and Muangthong in 2016-17 - Chiangrai don’t measure up very favourably. Add to that the fact that Thai teams typically don’t travel well and rely on home advantage for most of their points, Chiangrai have a very difficult task on their hands in trying to progress to the knockout stage. This might be a bit harsh, but I think out of their remaining four games, picking up one win and one draw would be a pretty successful campaign for them. 

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