Trio tipped to vie for title (12/02/2011)

As the 2011 TPL season kicks off today, title favourites Muang Thong could face a tough challenge from Buriram PEA and Chonburi .

In the third season of its "new era", the Thai Premier League is bigger with an increase in the number of teams from 16 to 18.

The Football Association of Thailand and its Thai Premier League Co say the extension was a result of the league becoming more popular and that this would be good for football development.

But while critics are not against a larger league, they argue that the move was prompted by "political reasons" and that the football authorities should not have hastily added two more teams to the competition.

At the end of last season, Si Sa Ket, Bangkok United and Army (now Army United) were the bottom three clubs and relegated under the previous rules.

But it was reported that a certain club forced the FAT to increase the number of TPL teams for the following season. The FAT suddenly announced an extended line-up meaning that the bottom three would have another chance to stay up in the TPL through play-offs.

As it turned out, Army and Si Sa Ket secured berths and will feature in this season's top flight along with promoted clubs Sri Racha, Chiang Rai and Khon Kaen.

While there are more teams, the contenders for the title are likely to remain the same with holders Muang Thong United, big spenders Buriram PEA and Chonburi FC front-runners.

Muang Thong will be looking for a hat-trick of titles in their third season in the top flight and pundits see them as favourites.

"As the two-time defending champions, they are hot favourites. Although they have made several changes to their squad, their experience gives them an edge," said Thai Rath football writer Worathep Makpoka.

The Kirins have been one of the busiest sides in the transfer market. They have sold or loaned several players to other clubs and brought in about a dozen new players.

On paper, they seem to have the strongest squad. The newcomers include Kupfah Boonmatoon, Anon Sangsanoi, former Fulham and Bradford City player Zesh Rehman of Pakistan, Finland defender Toni Kallio and Niger's Issoufou Boubacar.

They add to a star-studded line-up which includes Thailand internationals Panupong Wongsa, Nataporn Phanrit, Datsakorn Thonglao, Teerasil Dangda and Kawin Thammasatchanan.

The market for foreign players closed on Wednesday but clubs can still buy local players until early next month.

Muang Thong have also hired a new coach in former Thailand boss Carlos Roberto Carvalho. The Brazilian replaced Belgian Rene Desayere who was sacked last month after just one season although he guided the Kirins to the TPL title.

"Carlos has vast experience in Asian football and we believe he is capable of taking us to another level particularly in the continental competition," said Muang Thong general manager Ronnarit Suewaja.

But Carvalho, who was fired by Bangkok Glass after last season, got off to an unimpressive start when Muang Thong lost to Chonburi in the King's Trophy match two weeks ago.

While Muang Thong are tipped to keep the crown at their Yamaha stadium, many experts believe they could be struck by the Thunder Castle or bitten by the Sharks.

For many pundits, Buriram PEA, owned by political heavyweight Newin Chidchob, may be a better bet than Muang Thong.

Football-crazy Newin took over former TPL champions Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) last year and the Thunder Castle finished second in their first season under the new name.

"We will come back stronger next season," declared Newin after Buriram PEA came close to dethroning Muang Thong last season.

Buriram PEA are one of the wealthiest clubs backed by sponsorship from Newin's associates including duty free retailer King Power, AirAsia, World Gas and i-Mobile.

They are spending 120 million baht - the highest sum among the 18 clubs - to strengthen the squad.

Their new players include Jakkraphan Kaewprom, Sumanya Purisai and Kraikiat Beatakut as well as a host of foreign players.

Newin says he is not interested in becoming prime minister and only wants to see his Buriram PEA win the title. With handsome funds, determination and ambition, this could be Buriram PEA's season.

Last term, former TPL champions Chonburi claimed the FA Cup but they finished outside the top two in the league for the first time over the past few years and the Sharks are determined to return to the summit.

While they have been relatively quiet in the transfer market, they still have the likes of Suree Sukha, Suttinun Phukhom, Pipob On-mo, Therdsak Chaiman and Puritat Jarikanont.

More importantly, former national player Vittaya Laohakul, one of the most respected Thai coaches, has become more involved in coaching at Chonburi, one of the best organised clubs.

Bangkok Glass got off to a fast start last season only to run out of steam and finished fifth. With the arrival of Thailand striker Sarayoot "Joe Five Yards" Chaikamdee, the Rabbits believe they have got the final piece in the jigsaw which will see them win the title.

Once the country's top club, former champions BEC Tero have become also-rans over the past few years and could only finish ninth last campaign.

However, the Fire Dragons are keen to be back to where they used to stay. With Thanya Wongnak, former TV Channel 3 sports news editor, as manager, the club should be better off this season, although winning the title is a target too far.

Thai Port FC, fourth last season, are Cup kings having won the FA Cup in 2009 and the League Cup in 2010.

A team who can beat any side on their day, Thai Port's chances have been diminished by a legal dispute over ownership of the club between the Port Authority of Thailand and Pichet Mankong, who ran the team for the past two years.

The FAT has ruled in favour of the PAT but Pichet reportedly will bring the case to the Administrative Court.

Like in other leagues, promoted clubs are often favourites to go down and Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen and Sri Racha know too well that their priority is to avoid a quick return to Division One. Other contenders for the drop include Navy, Army and Si Sa Ket.

Concerned parties believe the new season will be more exciting.

"The new season will be more exciting and more entertaining because every team is well prepared," said TPL Co chairman Vichit Yamboonruang.

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