ACL Preview: Melbourne Victory v Muangthong United
Melbourne Victory and Muangthong United will meet in Round 3 of the 2014 AFC Asian Champions League play-offs at Simonds Stadium tonight at 7.45pm AEDT.
Melbourne Victory and Muangthong United will meet in Round 3 of the 2014 AFC Asian Champions League qualifying play-offs at Simonds Stadium on Saturday, February 15 at 7.45pm AEDT.
N/A (first meeting of the two clubs)
Past five matches
Consecutive wins have been a struggle for Melbourne Victory all season but with a spot in the AFC Asian Champions League (ACL) group stage on offer, the Big V will be desperate to change that on Saturday night. Melbourne have only managed to win two games in a row twice this season and have just two victories in their past eight matches. As much as last week's 3-1 win over Central Coast Mariners will give Kevin Muscat's side confidence, their A-League championship credentials will again take a battering if they lapse against Muangthong United.
While Victory have argued the ACL is a priority, it is hard to imagine Muscat will be relishing the concept of a tricky one-off play-off versus a relatively unknown opponent. But in a positive for Melbourne's head coach, Muangthong are not in fantastic form.
The runners-up from the 2013 Thai Premier League season have played just two competitive matches since the league campaign ended at the start of November. Muangthong knocked off Vietnam's Ha Noi T&T 2-0 last week in another ACL play-off, while they lost the annual Kor Royal Cup 1-0 to Buriram United at the start of February. The Kor Royal Cup is the traditional season-opener of Thailand's football season, pitting the champions of the Premier League and FA Cup against each other, and Muangthong should have lost by even more as Buriram had three goals ruled out during the contest.
Muangthong's head coach Scott Cooper will bring a strong squad to Simonds Stadium, however, with former English Premier League striker Jay Bothroyd to lead the line alongside Thai goal-machine Teerasil Dangda. If Victory are not at the top of their game, their ACL campaign will be over before it really begins.
The big issue:
Victory - If Melbourne are to reach the ACL group stage for the fourth time, they must be more clinical in the front third. Victory have failed to make the most of possession and goal-scoring opportunities in the A-League this season. Before last week's win over the Mariners, only two teams had taken more shots than Victory this term, while Melbourne's accuracy (44.9 per cent before) saw them in the bottom four of the league. In a cut-throat play-off, clear chances in front of goal will be rare, which will put a lot of pressure on the likes of James Troisi and Archie Thompson to convert.
Muangthong - Can the Thais win outside south-east Asia? In 10 previous ACL matches, Muangthong have only won or drawn playing in Thailand and Vietnam. Last year was the first time Muangthong competed in the group stage, having failed to get through the play-offs on two previous occasions. After claiming a draw in front of the own fans against Jeonbuk Motors, Muangthong lost the rest of their games, conceding 10 goals in three matches away from home. Cooper will have to find a way to cure his team's homesickness if they are to overcome Victory.
The game breaker:
Datsakorn Thonglao - The hopes of the visitors in Geelong will surely rest on the shoulders of captain Thonglao. The 30-year-old attacking midfielder has played 112 matches for Muangthong since joining in 2009, while he has also represented Thailand 96 times. At just 169 centimetres, Thonglao is not physically imposing but his long-range passing and ability from set pieces make him a dangerous opponent. Thonglao will run the show in midfield for Muangthong and if Victory's holding midfield duo can keep him quiet, the Big V will have a big chance of winning.
Muangthong's poor record outside south-east Asia and the fact they have yet to commence the new Thai Premier League season, means this match is there for the taking, as far as Victory are concerned. Muscat's men put in their best performance in a month in Gosford last week, and they should be close to full-strength against Muangthong.
While Gui Finkler has not been picked in the squad due to limits on international players, Melbourne's skipper Mark Milligan should be ready to start for the first time since he had knee surgery in January and Kosta Barbarouses (ankle) is expected to play a part, more than likely off the bench. With James Troisi (two goals) and Archie Thompson (one) finding some form in front of goal versus the Mariners, and Tom Rogic starting to settle, the signs are good for Victory.
Defensive focus and respect for the opponents will be key for Melbourne. Australian clubs have regularly been stunned in the ACL when they have underestimated their opposition. Last season, Brisbane Roar failed to reach the group stage after a play-off loss to Buriram, and Victory could face a similar fate if they take it easy in Geelong. Muangthong have quality imports in the likes of Bothroyd and Macedonian international Mario Gjurovski, while Dangda (86 goals in 181 games for Muangthong since 2009) is arguably Thailand's best player and is set to join La Liga outfit Almeria next season.