Fallen giants Muangthong United look on their way back to rejoining Thai football's elite

Muangthong United's resurgence in 2024 continued on Wednesday as they booked their place in the Thai League Cup final after an upset 2-0 win over reigning League 1 champions Buriram United. Muangthong United FC

In an 11-year run starting from 2008, only two teams shared the Thai League 1 title.

And when one won, the other was often the closest challengers and runners-up.

One of those teams were Buriram United, Thailand's record league champions who, as of last weekend, now have a 10th crown -- and third consecutive since 2021 -- to their names.

The other, while still the second most-successful side in Thai League 1 history on four titles, have not had as much joy in recent times.

Yet, there are hints that it may not be too long before Muangthong United are once again occupying a place among Thai football's elite.

With the Thai League 1 campaign coming to a close this weekend, Muangthong are guaranteed a top-five finish -- with the highest they can finish being fourth.

It does not seem too dissimilar to previous seasons -- since they were last runners-up in 2017 -- when they achieved three fourth-placed finishes while falling as low as 7th three years ago.

But this term, there is a distinct gap between the top five teams and the rest of the field in the 16-team competition -- with Muangthong currently holding a 13-point lead over 6th-placed Ratchaburi, who in turn are only ten points ahead of bottom-placed Trat. (For comparison, just three points separated the fifth and 9th-placed teams in Thai League 1 last season.)

A number of teams, apart from the usual suspects such as Buriram and Bangkok United, are pushing clear at the top and, positively for Muangthong, they are among these elite sides even if there is still a 17-point deficit of their own to make up between them and the champions.

Given how they have slipped by the wayside of late, it may be easily forgotten just how formidable they were between 2015-17 when just about every star in Thai football called Thunderdome Stadium their home.

Having brought through prominent names such as Teerasil Dangda, Kawin Thamsatchanan and Sarach Yooyen, the likes of Chanathip Songkrasin, Adisak Kraisorn, Peerapat Notchaiya and Tristan Do were all soon snapped up after rising to prominence at BEC Tero Sasana.

Remarkably, even Thailand internationals Theerathon Bunmathan and Charyl Chappuis were convinced to join from fierce rivals Buriram.

When Thailand won the second of two consecutive AFF Championship crowns in 2016, Muangthong had nine players in the 23-man squad with six featuring in the starting XI for both legs of the final.

Bolstered by quality foreigners such as Mario Gjurovski, Cleiton Silva and Heberty, it made for an outfit that were good enough to reach the knockout round of the AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- in 2017, where they recorded memorable wins over Kashima Antlers, Ulsan HD and Brisbane Roar.

But as star man Chanathip was allowed to leave for greener pastures, initially on loan and then permanently to J1 League outfit Consadole Sapporo, the bubble eventually burst as more stellar names gradually followed him out the door.

Either through a similar case like Chanathip, when foreign clubs came in to offer Teerasil and Kawin a chance to play abroad, or in the form of domestic rivals such as Bangkok United and BG Pathum United now having their go at flexing their financial muscle, it led to an exodus in Nonthaburi.

Still, while they were down, the Twin Qilins were never truly out.

The current squad does indeed no longer boasts the star power of yesteryear, with Weerathep Pomphan possibly in that category but having joined Bangkok United earlier this year, while the likes of Kawin and Do are no longer at the peak of their powers while still handy contributors.

Instead, a focus on youth is what has driven the gradual improvement and is perhaps what is giving the biggest belief that a full resurgence is not far away.

Now in their mid-20s, Picha Autra, Jaroensak Wonggorn and Poramet Arjvirai thrived when responsibility was previously placed on their then-younger shoulders.

Picha has since been handed the captaincy, while Poramet is a reliable avenue to goal with his 11 goals in the league this season second only to Brazilian import Willian Popp at the club.

Muangthong also pulled off something of a coup at the start of last season when they secured the services of Thanawat Suengchitthawon, long regarded as one of the country's brightest prospects after coming through the ranks of French outfit Nancy and even being on the books of Leicester from 2020.

While they are still finding their feet at senior level, Purachet Thodsanit and Soponwit Rakyart have shown glimpses of their ability as part of the Thailand U-23 side that won a silver medal at last year's Southeast Asian Games, while 20-year-old midfielder Kakana Khamyok is one to keep a close eye on following a breakout campaign where he has produced some outstanding playmaking displays.

Perhaps the surest sign that Muangthong are on their way back? A 2-0 win over Buriram on Wednesday, which saw them march on to a Thai League Cup final meeting with BPGU.

It has continued a fine second half of a campaign that initially looked headed for disaster after they lost nine of their opening 17 league games and had just 18 points to their names -- at which point they were actually 13th on the table and just one spot outside the relegation zone.

What followed since has been a remarkable run of ten wins from 12 outings with their only defeat coming against Buriram.

Not only did they steady the ship, they then surged forward and, after pulling off a huge upset against the dominant team in the land and their traditional rivals, they could still end the season with silverware.

It just might not be long before the once-mighty Twin Qilins are feared again.