Thailand has largely remained out of the continental limelight since the history-making back-to-back triumphs of Thai Farmers Bank in the Asian Club Championship midway through the 1990's. BEC Tero Sasana's surprise runners-up performance in the inaugural AFC Champions League in 2003 being the only time a club team from the south-east Asian nation has made an impact during the intervening period. However, with the meteoric emergence of Muang Thong United during recent years, the Land of Smiles can once again boast a club that is focused towards making a mark on the Asian continent.
Having stormed into the last four on their Asian debut in last year's AFC Cup, the Thai champions have started the 2011 edition looking to go one better. After a disappointing AFC Champions League play-off defeat against Indonesia’s Sriwijaya last month, the club's opening result in the second-tier competition was seemingly a show of intent. Muang Thong untroubled en route to an emphatic 4-0 victory against Vietnam’s Hanoi T&T.
There is no doubting the club from the central Nonthaburi Province are highly ambitious having sought to sign former France star Robert Pires last year. "We expect to win every game," said caretaker coach Robert Procureur. "We are Muang Thong United and we always try to win. Our brand of football is attacking and athletic and we do our best to satisfy the supporters."
Building for further success
Indeed, such a fighting spirit proved to be a telling factor last season as Muang Thong cantered to their second successive league crown, while at the same time embarking on their lengthy AFC Cup run. Among a number of key contributors were national team striker Teerasil Dangda, and Côte d'Ivoire’s Dagno Siaka, who scored 15 times last campaign to finish as the league's second top-scorer.
To further enhance their potency upfront, Muang Thong brought in Anon Sangsanoi from BEC Tero Sasana who emerged as one of the most sensational goal-getters last season with 14 goals. The new striking partnership he formed alongside Dangda proved devastating against Hanoi T&T, with the latter completed a brace and the former also on target.
Perhaps even more significant was the club’s backline recruitment with the high-profile signings of Pakistan defender Zesh Rehman from Bradford City and Finnish stalwart Toni Kallio from Sheffield United. Former Thailand and Bangkok United custodian Weera Koedpudsa was also among the import list providing a boost to the team’s goalkeeping stocks.
In contrast to their rampaging start in the AFC Cup, the club floundered in the opening two games of the new domestic campaign. An opening scoreless draw at Bangkok Glass was followed by an alarming 3-0 defeat at arch-rivals Army United, suggesting the new heavyweights of the Thai Premier League are facing some serious challengers.
Calisto the new steersman
The club’s lack of consistency, however, did little to daunt new coach Henrique Calisto, who took over from Procureur last week. The Portuguese coach has spent many years in Vietnam, during which time he twice took Dong Tam Long An to the V-League title, before famously guiding the national team to their first-ever international success at the 2008 AFF Suzuki Cup. And the 57-year-old believes his experiences within the region can help bring further glory to Muang Thong.
"I am here looking forward to bringing success to Muang Thong and my target is to win every tournament," he said. "I have studied Thai football for a long time and I know the club and many of the players. As the new coach, I am not just expecting victory but also looking to create a team that can play entertaining football for the fans.”
Calisto's first test in charge comes on Sunday against Thai Port with his side seeking their first league win of the season. Three days later they travel to Singapore for another tough challenge in the form of Tampines Rovers.
Calisto nevertheless remains phlegmatic about the pressure of coaching a club with such ambition. "Every coach has pressure in their job,” he says. “I have had 20 years experience in Portugal and ten years in Vietnam and I have passed every test so I can overcome the pressure.”