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There is no doubt the 'Thunder Castle' stadium (Chang Arena) has become a home fortress for Buriram United in all competitions. This includes the Asian Champions League (ACL) which once again saw Jeonbuk Hyundai of Korea return to face the pride of the Isan region, with the home side winning 1-0 after a goal to Supachok Sarachart in the 50th minute.

In last year's ACL competition, I watched Jeonbuk lose 3-2 at the same venue in the first leg of the round 16, a scoreline that greatly flattered the 2016 title winners. However, in the return leg the following week Jeonbuk bounced back for a comfortable 2-0 result that secured them a quarter final spot. 

For this year's Group G encounter, like last year the steamy conditions of around 35 degrees for the early kick off 6pm local time were extra factors to stifle the visitors. For readers back in Australia, the weather is similar to that experienced in the Top End around Darwin during the testing 'build up' prior to relief of the wet season. 

The early season form of Buriram had been patchy, with two unconvincing draws to commence the 2019 Thai Premier League season followed by a morale boosting 2-0 home victory last Saturday.

Probably of more concern was the 0-3 loss last week on the road last week against Urawa Red Diamonds to open this year's ACL campaign. Meanwhile, their Korean rivals had a comfortable  3-1 home win over Beijing FC. 

High achieving Brasilian striker Diogo left Buriram in the off season, and their biggest new recruit was Pedro Junior who previously played in the J.League for Vissel Kobe and Kashima Antlers. 

Yesterday evening's game attracted a somewhat disappointing crowd of 7,222. Nonetheless, the GU12 active home fans area on the half way line opposite the squads' benches providing stunning vocal and visual support consistently throughout the game. This contrasted with a modest contingent of travelling Jeonbuk fans in an alloted 'safe standing' corner section to the right of the main grandstand.

The match started in cautious manner, and it was not until the 27th minute that things came alive when a tight weaving run by Supachai Jaided ended with a left footed shot from outside the box catching the outside of the right upright. 

After half-time the home side took the initiative to create chances and then a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute. It was from a counter attack, with a sublime through ball by Pedro Junior into space for Supachok who finished with a dazzling left footed strike inside the near post. Supachok was subsequently named man of the match.

Less than ten minutes later, Buriram had a near post header well saved by keeper Song Bumkeun from a corner. However, Jeonbuk gradually worked themselves back into the contest and in the 69th minute a fierce long range strike by Lopes cannoned off the underside of the crossbar and then bounced away to safety, fortuitously for the hosts. 

From there on it was mostly constant pressure from 'Nokseakjeonsa' (Green Warriors) which included many wasteful crosses that rarely tested keeper Siwarak Tedsungnoen. The defensive focus and discipline was impressive right through to the final whistle, with home supporters roaring and cheering their appreciation for every clearance and interception. 

Full time and a well deserved victory for Buriram based upon resilience, poise, maintaining concentration and structure, and converting one of the few clear cut goal scoring opportunities of the match.

Of note, the sounds of iconic band 'Queen' bellowed out before and after the game and during half-time at the stadium. In particular this included 'Don't Stop Me Now' with the lines 'I'm burnin' through the sky, yeah. Two hundred degrees. That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit', especially appropriate given the heat context. 

At the post match conference, there was a stark contrast  in reaction from the opposing teams' coaches. Almost bedudgingly, Jeonbuk's Jose Morais said “I accept” (the loss) and was critical of his opponent's tactics. Buriram's Bozidar Bandovic was proud of his team's win, and  diplomatically sidestepped the comments by his counterpart. 

On the basis of this performance, there is every reason to believe that Buriram can repeat last year's success by making it through to the knockout stage of the ACL 2019 edition. 

On Thursday morning I am flying back to Bangkok before heading to the Kaeng Krachan National Park region for a few days, before returning to Sydney for the eagerly anticipated inaugural Football Writers Festival at the iconic and historic Jamberoo Pub near Kiama on the south coast of New South Wales.

Australia's teams in ACL 2019

Meanwhile, the 1-0 away loss for Sydney FC against Kawasaki Frontale means the Sky Blues are in an almost 'must win' situation at home to Shanghai SIPG early next month. Sydney earned a point in their first game at home against Ulsan Hyundai, who defeated Shanghai SIPG 1-0 in Korea overnight. 

Even more precariously is Melbourne Victory's position. They have lost both matches so far and must at least draw in their next game away to Guangzhou Evergande to have any chance at all of progression out of the group stage. Melbourne Victory lost 1-3 to Daegu FC of Korea in their first match, while Daegu defeated Evergrande on Tuesday by the same scoreline.

Both Australian clubs are sitting last in their respective groups.

The ongoing struggles for Australian club sides in the ACL need a boost through reform of the national leagues, more fierce regular competition and lifting of the salary cap.

We also need the club owners with incentives from the relevant national administrative body to invest in football talent from East Asia including AFF (ASEAN) member nations. 

Categories: Opinion | Asia

#acl2019, asian champions league, buriram united, jeonbuk hyundai, sydney fc, melbourne victory, football writers' festival

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