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Asian Eye - Buriram United in need of ACL leap of faith

On a balmy spring Tuesday evening in South Korea’s North Jeolla province, the gentle wind blowing the cherry blossoms hither and thither outside, everything seemed right with the world of Thai club football.

Buriram United, this year’s conquerors of both Kashiwa Reysol, the Japanese J-League champions, and the Chinese champions, Guangzhou Evergrande were on the verge of an even more famous victory.

They were leading against Jeonbuk Hyundai, Korean champions, and last year’s AFC Champions League finalists.

With a three-point lead over Jeonbuk already, this result would have put them on nine points, all but guaranteeing them qualification to the last 16 of the competition.

And why is that such a big deal? Because ever since 2003, when Bangkok side BEC Tero Sasana finished as runners-up in the first ever Asian Champions League, Thai sides have crashed and burned in this competition.

Not a single team has made it past the group stages since the heady days of 2003.

And with Buriram drawn in Group H, along with the champions of the three biggest leagues in Asia, most would have thought even Houdini would have struggled to get out of this one.

But a bright start for United had things looking up in early March; a fine victory against the Japanese champions gave the home fans something to cheer about.

Even better, though, was the side’s second result in Group H, when they won their tricky away tie in Guangzhou. April had been less kind on them, though, as Jeonbuk ran out 2-0 victors in Buriram.

Dream start

After a dream start in the return fixture in Jeonju, though, it looked like the Thais had the Korean champs on the ropes. Young Cameroonian striker Franck Ohandza’s hopeful shot found the net, and United smelt blood. Last time an ACL fixture was held here, Guangzhou had humiliated Joenbuk 5-1.

The home crowd fell eerily silent, fearing the worst. After an almost perfect season last year, Jeonbuk have been struggling, not only in the ACL, but also in domestic competitions. The powerhouse team of 2011 has yet to find its feet in 2012.

However, the Motors of Jeonbuk have a not-so-secret weapon in the form of Lee Dong-Gook, the top scorer in the 2011 ACL, the 2011 K-League, and the reigning Korean Player of the Year. Within the space of two minutes, Thai hearts were breaking as Lee found the back of the net twice to put the Motors ahead.

Buriram, though, showed huge character to get themselves back into the game, with Ohandza netting again just before the one hour mark.

The brave fightback was in vain, though, after a Park Won-Jae strike crept in on the 80th minute to freeze the Thais on six points in the group, level with Jeonbuk.

The United manager Attaohol Puspakom blamed the (rather clement) weather, and his own defence for the loss, but, in reality, the only difference between the sides was Jeonbuk’s formidable Lee.

Jaded and uncertain

Although the rest of the Motors’ team looked jaded and uncertain, strikers like Lee are hard to come by in Asia, and he proved to be the difference.

Thankfully, though, Lee is an anomaly, and the Buriram defenders will not need to face another striker of his calibre unless they make it out of the group.

However, a realistic target for United is breaking the hoodoo and becoming only the second Thai team ever to reach the last 16.

And although their remaining fixtures are not easy, they should remain confident. They will need at least a win from their last two games: a home fixture against Guangzhou and a visit to Kashiwa, both of whom they have already beaten this year.

United play tidy, passing football, and in Uzbek midfielder Azqar Jagiderov, tricky playmaker Suchao Nuchnum, and their prodigious young striker Ohandza (once on the books at Club Brugge in Belgium), they have the spine of a good team.

Until midway through Tuesday night, they looked to have the spirit to take the giant leap into the next phase of this competition.

Now they are no longer unbeaten in Asia this year, they have a real task on their hands. Self belief has just become United’s only key to the elusive door of the ACL last 16.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea’s leading football monthly, Best Eleven.


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