Chanathip's BEC relegated while Thai champions Buriram finish unbeaten
Two of the biggest clubs in Thai football will play in Division One next year, after BEC Tero Sasana and Port FC were relegated on a dramatic final day of the 2015 Thai Premier League (TPL) season.
The fall of the Fire Dragons is particularly shocking, given that they possess some of the finest young talents in Thai football, including playmaker Chanathip 'Messi J' Songkrasin and classy defender Tanaboon Kesarat. It is the first time that they have been relegated from the top flight since the formation of the TPL in 1996.
The Port Lions are more familiar with lower division football, having played in Division One as recently as 2013.
At the start of proceedings over the weekend, six clubs were still in danger of the drop and joining already relegated TOT SC. In an improbable twist, four of those clubs won against teams above them in the league, but Port FC fell to a crushing 5-1 defeat at home to the invincible champions, Buriram United, who finished the season with an unbeaten record.
Tero did their best to stay in the top flight by winning 5-0 at Chiang Rai United but it was not enough as rivals Navy FC won 2-1 at home to Army United to survive due to their head-to-head record.
Navy head coach Stefano 'Teco' Cuguerra joined the club when it was deep in relegation trouble in September but has managed to turn things around. On Sunday evening, his side took a two-goal lead through Dennis Buschening and Rodrigo Vergilio before Kriangkrai Chasang's reply with 10 minutes to go set up a nervy finish.
Teco told ESPN FC, "In the last 10 minutes, we knew that 2-1 was good enough to stay in the league. We lost Angelo Machuca to injury, which made it difficult as he is our main defensive midfielder but I was always confident that we would win."
When asked what turned the club from relegation favourites to final day survivors, Teco said, "The most important factors were the change in the tactical system and improvements in our training." The Brazilian, however, has yet to sign a contract for next season so his future remains uncertain.
Port FC, who started the game a point ahead of many of their rivals, were unlucky to be facing the only unbeaten team in the TPL. The hosts made a bright start but the champions stepped up a gear after the half-hour mark and Gilberto Macena and Diogo Luis Santo hit two excellent goals in two minutes. Macena went on to complete a hat-trick as Alexandre Gama's side ended the season in style, while their opponents saw other results go against them.
Suphanburi saw their rivals slip up again and a 2-2 draw at home to Osotspa Samut Prakan was enough to seal third place and set up an Asian Champions League (ACL) preliminary round tie with Yangon United. It has been an up-and-down season for the War Elephant but Carmelo Gonzalez's double strike gave them a route into Asia's premier club competition for the first time.
Saraburi beat the drop by surprisingly easing to a 3-0 win at Chonburi, who had been challenging for third place. The Sharks' coach Jadeet Meelarp resigned after the match for failing to live up to the club's previous achievements. Chainat, another relegation-threatened side, won 3-1 away to Bangkok United, who were also in with a shout to finish third.
Sisaket and Bangkok Glass fought out a goalless draw in the north east, meaning the hosts stay in the TPL but the Glass Rabbits finish in sixth place after looking good in third at the halfway point of the season.
Just two games did not have an impact on the relegation battle or the fight for third spot. TPL runners-up Muang Thong United drew 2-2 at home to Nakhon Ratchasima, who finish their first season in the top flight in a very respectable eighth place. And seventh-placed Ratchaburi ran out 4-2 winners at TOT SC thanks to two late goals.
As the dust settles on the season, 2015's TPL will be remembered as the year Buriram stepped it up to another level, while former ACL finalists' BEC Tero Sasana's relegation was met with disbelief by fas across the country.
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