Muang Thong can turn around poor form in ACL against Kawasaki - Kawin
Muang Thong United head coach Totchtawan Sripan insists his side are ready to make history as they target a place in the AFC Champions League (ACL) quarterfinals when they host Kawasaki Frontale in the first leg of their Round of 16 clash on Tuesday evening.
The Thai champions have lost four games in a row, including three defeats in the Thai League, in the space of a week. But Totchtawan wants to put domestic form to one side as Muang Thong attempt to become the first Thai side to reach the last eight since Buriram United in 2013.
"This is the first time that we have reached the last 16," said Totchtawan. "It's a great opportunity, and it's very important to get a positive result to help us progress further in the tournament.
"I'm not worried about our domestic form at the moment because I see the Thai League and the ACL as two separate things. For now, I'm focused on the ACL, and I believe we can get a good result."
Muang Thong's highly rated goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan was similarly bullish as he highlighted the work that Totchtawan had done to prepare his team.
"Football in Japan is obviously at a higher standard than in Thailand, but that's not a problem because I think that our coach has planned and prepared us very well for the challenge," Kawin said. "He has highlighted the dangers from Kawasaki, and we really believe that we can win."
Muang Thong's recent dip in form has come in the midst of a punishing schedule that sees them play their fourth game in eight days, but the Kirins' coach was philosophical about the challenges that the team has faced.
"It has been tough because the programme has been fixed in this way for a long time," Totchtawan told ESPN FC.
"We haven't been able to rotate players as much as we would like because the squad depth is limited. But we still feel that we have done as much as possible on the training ground to prepare for this game."
Muang Thong go into the game with most players available, but long-term injury victim Adisak Kraisorn remains sidelined, while fellow striker Xisco Jimenez faces a late fitness test, having been out for three weeks.
Kawasaki head coach Toru Oniki played down the contrasting form of the sides. While the hosts have lost four consecutive matches, the visitors come into the game after four wins without conceding a goal. Their most recent victory was a morale-boosting 3-0 win at Kashima Antlers.
"Even though Muang Thong have lost these four games, I have been looking at the way they have played and the individual qualities of the players," Oniki told ESPN FC. "In the ACL, they have performed very well so far, so we have to make sure we do not take them lightly."
In what is arguably the tie of the round, Japanese champions Kashima Antlers face Luiz Felipe Scolari's Guangzhou Evergrande. Kashima, Group E winners ahead of Muang Thong, travel to China for Tuesday's first leg, coming up against the likes of former Spurs star Paulinho and in-form Brazilian striker Alan Carvalho.
Like Muang Thong, Kashima have had struggles on the home front with back-to-back defeats leaving them down in sixth place in the J-League. In contrast, Guangzhou have won six games in a row to take top spot in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
On Wednesday, South Korea's Jeju United host Urawa Reds, of Japan. Jeju come into the match in good shape as they sit on top of the K-League Classic after 12 games of the season.
Urawa did well to top a group featuring star-studded Shanghai SIPG and Korean champions FC Seoul, but their recent domestic form has been inconsistent, dropping eight points in the last four J-League matches. The trip to South Korea may not be coming at the best time for them.
There is also an all-Chinese tie on Wednesday as Shanghai SIPG take on their CSL rivals Jiangsu Suning. All eyes will be on Shanghai's Brazilian trio of Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson, but Jiangsu have their own Brazilian star quality in former Chelsea midfielder Ramires and former Shakhtar Donetsk star, Alex Teixeira.
The home side will start as favourites for this one as Andre Villas-Boas' men sit 16 points ahead of their rivals in the CSL with just 10 matches played.
SIPG warmed up with a 3-1 derby win over Shanghai Shenhua, while Jiangsu lost 2-1 at Guangzhou Evergrande.
Jiangsu's domestic form is in stark contrast to their ACL form. Despite topping group H with five wins from six games, they sit 14th in the CSL -- level on points with the two teams in the relegation places.
By Thursday morning, we will have a clearer idea of which teams are likely to reach the quarterfinals. And we will find out if Muang Thong can turn their form around to keep them in with a chance of flying the flag for Southeast Asia in the last eight.
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