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On a steamy last Tuesday, Buriram United of Thailand enthralled a boisterous home crowd at the 'Thunder Castle' (Chang Arena) to defeat Jeonbuk Hyundai in the first leg of their round of 16 Asian Champions League (ACL) tie, with a 3-2 win. 

Beforehand, hopes had been high and yet expectations reserved for a good result against the two-time ACL champions (2016 and 2006), with most locals agreeing that the warm weather conditions (37 degress earlier in the day, 33 degrees at kick-off) were strongly in favour of their home side.

The 50-minute Air Asia early morning service on match day from my base in Bangkok was full, with many Koreans on the same flight ,as well as lots of Buriram supporters who live in the national capital.

Unlike against Guangzhou in early April, the travelling away fans contingent “Mad Green Boys” was very modest in size yet passionate in expression. Meanwhile the large group of GU12 active home fans for Buriram once again impressed with their drummers, sustained singing and chants, and giant ‘tifos’ before kick-off and during the game to celebrate goals.

With a severely depleted squad of only 14 travelling players, Jeonbuk took the game to the hosts from the kick-off in an absorbing encounter.

Despite this, in the sixth minute it was the hosts who opened the scoring through a brilliant header by Brasilian Edgar Silva from a sublime cross by Junsoo on the right-hand side.

The intensity of Buriram in stifling the visitors was outstanding across the park throughout the first half to reach the break at 1-0.

After early pressure by the visitors in the opening minutes of the second half, the equaliser came from a clinical right footed finish by Ricardo Lopes at the end of his weaving run to just inside the box.

The hosts responded well and on 60 minutes Diogo scored with an incredible direct free kick from 20 metres out that left goal-keeper Song Bumkeun stranded.

On 69 minutes one of most stunning goals ever seen in the history of the ACL was produced by Silva (right - courtesy of AFC). Collecting the ball near half way, his amazing solo run to overcome defenders culminated in deft final strike low into the left-hand corner. (Silva's effort earned the goal of the week in the Asian Champions League). 

On 80 minutes Diogo was thwarted from completing a brace for a fourth goal when his volley was well saved by the keeper. Then hugely frustrating for Buriram, in stoppage time Jeonbuk reduced the deficit with a close range shot by Son Jun-Ho into the roof of the net.

The crowd was officially reported as 10,382 and yet an intense atmosphere was created in the 32,600-seat stadium. Comparing with the previous match against Guangzhou, along with many others (locals and media), I was baffled and indeed stunned with this official figure as it looked like many thousands more inside. Maybe there is a discrepancy between AFC reporting the ‘paid attendance’ and lots of other fans who entered well after the game started?

At the post-game media conferences, I firstly asked the visiting coach Choi Kang-Heeabout the decision to bring such a diminished size squad and how did the hot and humid conditions influence adjustments to preparations. 

While acknowledging the issue yet not providing an explanation, the former national team player and coach of Korea advised the available players were “well prepared’’ for the circumstances and conditions.

Another source close to the Korean club advised me during the evening that the small squad size was a mix of factors, both forced and choice.

Robust debate about the issue continued on Twitter late into this week, further fuelled by a segment by The Asian Game podcast which attracted a diversity of responses and opinions on the merits of the decision by Kang-Hee.

�� �� ��@mcintinhos is not happy with @Jeonbuk_hyundai and gives the club a whack for only sending 14 players to ���� to play Buriram United in the #ACL2018 Round of 16.

LISTEN NOW: https://t.co/N6dVuMj7xk pic.twitter.com/EBaiAdRzga

— The Asian Game (@TheAsianGame) May 11, 2018

Most observers agree there was much good fortune for Jeonbuk to get such a close result. This may still not be enough for Jeonbuk to be able to produce the necessary turnaround at their Jeonju World Cup Stadium this coming Tuesday, although weather conditions are forecast to be a lot cooler than in Buriram.

In contrast the home coach Bozidar Bandovic from Serbia, spoke with great passion and pride about his team’s performance in spite of conceding the late goal. When asked about his incredible second half goal for Buriram, ‘man of match’ Edgar Silva speaking confidently in English had some tongue in cheek fun at himself about making sure he delivered goals as “it’s my job (to do so)”.

Many in the international football media now see Jeonbuk as favoured to progress with their away goals ‘in the bank’. Obviously had the score finished at 3-1 then the Isan side would have been in a much stronger position.  

However, the resilience, self-belief, quality and form of Buriram should not be underestimated as they resolve to at least equal their success in the 2013 tournament by reaching the quarter-finals. The pressure is well and truly on the Korean club who will need to perform at a much higher level to overcome the challenge being faced.

If Buriram can prevail next week, they will be into the quarter finals over two legs to be played on 27-28 August and 17-18 September.

Meeting Ashley Westwood

By the way, an unexpected bonus from my journey was to meet Ashley Westwood former pro-footballer in England, then assistant manager at clubs in England and now coaching in Asia. He had a long and distinguished playing career as a defender including stints with Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Crewe Alexander, Bradford City and Northampton Town. During his term as head coach with Bengaluru FC, they won the I-League title twice.

Ashley was accompanied by a friend Matt Holland, originally from Wales, who works as a professional football coach and elite performance specialist in the south-east Asia region. Matt is technical director role with Buriram United FC and has ambitious plans that have already included establishment of academies based in Bangkok. He also previously worked with Football West from where he holds an FFA Pro License.

Our conversations over coffees at the stadium and then the next morning on the flight back to Bangkok covered a wide range of football topics in particular the state of the game in SE Asia and Australia.




For comprehensive match reports, visit the the Buriram Times and Bangkok Post.

A big thank you (kob khun krab) again to staff of Buriram United FC at the media centre for their wonderful assistance at the Thunder Castle. 

Categories: News | Asia

buriram united, thai football, jeonbuk hyundai, #acl2018

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