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Asian Champions League is wide open

ACL
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 By Paul Murphy

Muang Thong United stun Ulsan Hyundai to go top of ACL Group E

Teerasil Dangda's first-half strike gave Muang Thong United another memorable AFC Champions League (ACL) win as they went top of Group E by defeating South Korea's Ulsan Hyundai.

Teerasil's solitary goal was enough to seal a 1-0 victory, but the Thai champions could have made it a more comfortable night with better finishing. Xisco Jimenez, Adisak Kraisorn and Teerasil were all guilty of missing good chances in the second half, but the hosts held on after a nervy ending.

Muangthong UnitedMuangthong United
Ulsan HyundaiUlsan Hyundai
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Brisbane Roar's win over Kashima Antlers earlier in the day sees the Kirins two points clear of the Japanese side and on the verge of qualification.

Here are three things we saw in Muang Thong's victory:

1. Theerathon's quality shines again

Theerathon Bunmathan has already made his mark in this year's ACL, most notably with the stunning free kick that gave his side the lead in their memorable 2-1 victory over Kashima Antlers on Matchday Two.

Against Ulsan, he gave an immense performance, demonstrating why he is considered to be one of the top full-backs on the continent. It was his creative prowess that stood out in particular as he was at the heart of many of the hosts' best moves.

After seven minutes, Theerathon warmed to the task by jinking inside two defenders on the right flank before curling in a cross aimed at Xisco, but there was just too much weight on it for the Spaniard to reach. In the 23rd minute, Theerathon spotted Teerasil drift into space in the penalty area and sent in an excellent ball that the striker just couldn't get under control quickly enough before being crowded out.

In the 36th minute, the national team skipper's persistence down the left won the home side a corner. While his kick was cleared, the resulting passage of play kept the pressure on and the ball found its way back to Theerathon on the left.

The left-back sent in another wicked cross, which Mongkol Tossakrai met at the far post. The ball found its way across to Teerasil who tapped in from six yards out for what proved to be the winning goal.

Teerasil Dangda scores in ACL for Muang Thong
Teerasil Dangda's winning goal was created by the genius of Theerathon Bunmathan.

At the beginning of the second half, Theerathon demonstrated excellent skills, pirouetting twice past several challenges. It might have looked like showboating, but there was very nearly an end product. Theerathon found Chanathip Songkrasin and the playmaker sent Xisco clear down the left. The Spanish striker had to cover a bit of ground and, as the angle narrowed, he snatched at his shot and sent it wide.

Minutes later, a wonderful move involving Teerasil and Chanathip saw the ball land at Theerathon's feet at the edge of the Ulsan box. His powerful left-footed strike had to be beaten out by a fine save from Kim Yongdae.

His one-man show continued when another set piece caused confusion and forced Yongdae to concede a corner.

Another Theerathon corner gave Teerasil the chance to wrap up the points in the 86th minute, but the striker side-footed over from a good position, forcing the home fans to ensure more nervy moments.

Everyone played their part in the victory, but Theerathon was superb at both ends of the pitch.

2. Defensive grit proves key

Muang Thong's strength at the back again provided the foundation for a fine result. The Kirins have now conceded just once in four Group E games.

The excellent Kawin Thamsatchanan in goal gives the defenders confidence and in Naoaki Aoyama and Celio Santos, there are two fine centre backs. Tristan Do and Theerathon are two terrier-like full-backs who constantly pressure their opponents.

Thailand goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan
Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan is part of an impressive Muang Thong defence.

The tone was set In the ninth minute when the hulking Ivan Kovacec threatened on the left but Do battled ferociously for the ball and eventually managed to force it out of play.

The visitors certainly had the better of the early exchanges and were first to get an effort on goal when Dimitrios Petratos fired a low 20-yard shot just wide in the 12th minute. A fine cross from Petratos on the right then caused panic in the Thai area and Kawin had to be alert to punch clear.

But the Muang Thong defence were holding the Koreans at bay by being organised and disciplined in their positioning.

The game turned in Muang Thong's favour after they opened the scoring and they stayed on top before Ulsan stepped up a gear after the hour mark. But the defenders stuck to their task and when the ball did get beyond them, Kawin was there to keep the ball out, particularly when pushing over Petratros' stinging free-kick

Kirins' head coach Totchtawan Sripan has been mooted as the next Thailand head coach. If he could translate this kind of defensive display to another stage, it would certainly be a decent appointment.

3. Muang Thong fans show Ulsan how it's done

On the night before the Thai New Year celebrations begin, Muang Thong United fans were in party mood. Outside the stadium, the traditional water fights had already started and before kickoff on the 'Curva Sud', bags of powder were thrown in the air, creating an impressive visual effect. This powder is traditionally mixed with water to be rinsed off in the raucous water fights that follow.

Muang Thong fans in ACL match
The memorable win could mean that Muang Thong fans will enjoy the Thai New Year celebrations more than usual.

As approximately 11,000 home fans created an electric atmosphere, about 10 hardy Ulsan fans sat within rows of empty seats in one corner of the stadium. The contrast couldn't have been been greater, and minds were cast back to the lame atmosphere for the fixture in South Korea last month.

Just over 1300 spectators bothered to show up at the Ulsan Munsu Stadium, highlighting a certain indifference to this stage of the tournament for a club that has averaged over 10,000 for its K League fixtures this year.

While the cold of Korea may not lend itself to water fights, the spectator experience would be so much better if the Ulsan fans could show just a little more enthusiasm for the competition.

Muang Thong go into Matchday Five at home to Brisbane Roar in control of their Group E fate. Another performance like this would almost certainly see them progress to the next stage.

Bangkok-based Paul Murphy has lived in Asia for a decade, writing for ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK

  

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