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Asian Champions League is wide open

ACL
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 By Paul Murphy

Muang Thong United have nothing to fear in ACL knockout stages

Thai champions Muang Thong United face a return trip to Japan as success in their AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign has handed them a Round of 16 tie with Kawasaki Frontale.

The Kirins' 2-1 defeat away to J.League champions Kashima Antlers on Wednesday night saw them finish runners up in Group E, having already sealed qualification for the next round when they beat Brisbane Roar last month.

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Muang Thong's performances have been a pleasant surprise to many, and they can approach their next challenge with confidence after demonstrating that they have what it takes to get the better of some of the continent's best.

Here are three things we have seen in Muang Thong United's Group E campaign:

1. Kirins restore national pride

Thailand's reputation took a bit of a battering in the ACL last year as Buriram United imploded and ended up with just one point from six matches -- earned in a meaningless, final fixture.

Muang Thong and Brisbane ACL press conference
Muang Thong's victory over John Aloisi's Brisbane Roar on April 26 secured their place in the knockout stages.

Buriram had previously competed well in the competition, including a run to the quarterfinals in 2013. But 2016's disastrous campaign came after Chonburi had suffered a 9-0 playoff defeat to FC Tokyo, while Muang Thong were outclassed in a 3-0 defeat to Shanghai SIPG at the same stage.

When this year's draw handed the Thais a group containing the Japanese champions, and sides from the K-League and A-League, Totchtawan Sripan's men were the clear underdogs.

However, Matchday One's 0-0 draw at Brisbane Roar made it clear that the Thai champions were going to compete. Playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin's man-of-the-match performance gave a taste of what was to come.

Stirring home victories over Kashima and Ulsan Hyundai, and a battling draw in South Korea, set the stage for a 3-0 home triumph against Brisbane to clinch qualification for the knockout stage.

Muang Thong's Matchday Two victory over Kashima was their first ever in the competition, not including qualification matches. The first was quickly followed by the second and third, and memories of Buriram 2016 faded into the distance as the rest of Asia recognised that a Thai League side could match some of the biggest clubs in the region.

2. Muang Thong get set to unleash Heberty

Despite winning their first title in four years in 2016, things started a little ominously for Muang Thong in 2017. First, Thailand international midfielder Tanaboon Kesarat was sold to Chiang Rai United before prolific striker Cleiton Silva followed him out of the door, with a move to Shanghai Shenxin in China.

Former Ratchaburi striker Heberty Fernandes will join the Muang Thong squad for the rest of the ACL campaign.

Dynamic midfielder Sarach Yooyen was then ruled out for the season after suffering a broken ankle on the eve of the ACL campaign. Experienced Spanish centre-back Mario Abrante was also allowed to leave, and the Kirins were suddenly without four of the players who were key to their 2016 success.

But Muang Thong have come back even stronger as a result of a couple of key additions to the squad, and the excellent coaching of Totchawan. Brazilian centre-back Celio Santos has been an upgrade on Abrante. Lee Ho's graft and big-game experience in the defensive midfield role has ensure that fans have quickly forgotten about Tanaboon.

Unsung heroes Wattana Playnum and Ratchapol Nawanno have defied expectations and proved able replacements for Sarach. And Silva's loss has not been too keenly felt, given the attacking form of Xisco Jimenez, Teerasil and Chanathip.

Consistently outstanding performances from full-backs Tristan Do and Theerathon Bunmathan have also been key to the defensive strength and attacking thrust of the team on several memorable ACL nights.

Muang Thong have already signed another Brazilian striker Heberty Fernandes to replace Silva. Heberty arrived too late to take part in the group stage. But the 2014 Thai League Player of the Year will now be eligible to add extra bite to the Kirins' attack when they face another Japanese side.

Teerasil Dangda celebrates Muang Thong ACL goal
Having beaten Kashima at home in February, Muang Thong should have nothing to fear against Kawasaki Frontale.

3. Nothing to fear from Frontale

Had Muang Thong avoided defeat at Kashima on Wednesday, they would have been preparing for a glamour last-16 tie with Felipe Scolari's Guangzhou Evergrande. A visit from the Chinese side -- ACL champions in 2013 and 2015 -- and their World Cup-winning manager would certainly have been a more attractive tie for the neutral fan.

However, the loss in Japan ensured that Kawasaki Frontale would be next up for the Thai champions later this month. While any J.League side represents a significant challenge, facing Japanese opponents may offer Muang Thong a better chance of reaching the last eight than a clash with Guangzhou and the likes of Paulinho, Jackson Martinez and Ricardo Goulart.

Tactically, Muang Thong have been excellent in the tournament, so they should not go into the tie with Frontale with any kind of inferiority complex. A combination of excellent defending, midfield steel and attacking flair has ensured that they have more than matched opponents from stronger leagues.

Chanathip has proved his value with three man-of-the match performances ahead of his summer loan move to Consadole Sapporo in the J League. "Messi J" will be determined to end this spell at Muang Thong on a high by helping his teammates into the quarter final, while alerting the Japanese public to his talent once again.

Muang Thong United will go into the first leg on May 23 as underdogs. But they have become used to defying expectations. The Thais will be ready to give it their all in an attempt to write another new chapter in the history books.

Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for nine years, contributing to ESPN FC since 2014. He is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor. @PaulMurphyBKK

  

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