Thailand need to crown a new champion, unearth a striker for 2018

Thai football enters the New Year after a fascinating 2017, which saw no shortage of ups and downs.

Despite some outstanding performances from Japan-based Chanathip Songkrasin, Thailand exited World Cup qualifying with a whimper, leading to the end of Kiatisuk "Zico" Senamuang's otherwise successful reign.

Muang Thong United surpassed all expectations by reaching the Round of 16 in the AFC Champions League (ACL) ahead of teams from South Korea and Australia.

But Thai League (T1) crowds fell for the second year running and Buriram United were crowned champions for the fourth time in five years.

Ahead of the Thais' AFF Suzuki Cup defence, here are five wishes for Thai football in 2018.

1. A new champion

The dominance of Muang Thong and Buriram is making the T1 title race too predictable.

We saw spirited challenges from Chonburi in 2014 and Bangkok United in 2016, but we have now had nine years of a duopoly.

Chiang Rai United have invested again and could mount a more sustained bid this time around after a fourth-placed finish and an FA Cup win in 2017.

Bangkok United have cleared out many of their squad, and a team in transition may not be able to hit the ground running.

The biggest dark horses will be Port FC, who have loosened the purse strings in spectacular style by bringing in Thai internationals Nurul Sriyankem and Bodin Phala and South Korean ACL winner Kim Sung-Hwan.

But the real headline grabber was the capture of Dragan Boskovic from Bangkok United. The Montenegrin netted 38 times in 2017 and will be expected to lead Port into the top five at the very least.

The possibility of neither Buriram nor Muang Thong winning T1 remains unlikely, but it would be good to see other clubs get closer.

2. An end to the breaks

Thailand has favoured its under-22 and under-23 sides, as well as its senior national team over the domestic league in recent years, and 2017 saw a preposterous number of breaks to accommodate them.

A three-week mid-season international break in June was followed by a three-week break in July for the King's Cup and the 2018 AFC U23 Championship qualifiers. Then there was almost a month off in August for the Southeast (SEA) Games and a FIFA fortnight.

The fixture congestion this created at other times of the year arguably cost Muang Thong United their chance of the title. From April 19 to May 23, the Kirins had to play 11 games, including two return trips to Tokyo in the ACL.

During this period, they suffered three defeats in a week, which allowed Buriram United to move clear before eventually winning the title.

The Asian Games in August loom, and it is to be hoped that this will not result in another extended period of T1 inactivity.

3. Bigger crowds

The favouring of the national sides over T1 has undoubtedly been just one of the causes of falling attendances.

There are also issues with storm-hit games, stadium accessibility, lack of marketing and perceptions of match-fixing, for which several players and officials were recently arrested.

There is also the issue of stop-start games, with players feigning injury and delays, due to arguments between players and officials.

The starkest examples of falling crowds come from the north east of the country. Buriram may be champions again, but they have seen average attendances drop by over 25 per cent in the last two years.

Nakhon Ratchasima had the second highest crowds behind Buriram in 2015, but numbers have fallen by more than half.

Arresting a downward trend is going to be a tough challenge, but clubs and the ruling bodies must work to ensure that the trend does not continue.

4. The emergence of a young Thai striker

As usual, the T1 scoring charts were dominated by import players in 2017. Teerasil Dangda was the highest Thai on the list, his 14 goals putting him in 11th place.

Four of the next five Thais were over the age of 30, with 27-year-old Adisak Kraisorn the exception.

Sittichok Kannoo's seven goals for relegated Thai Honda may not have been hugely impressive. But at just 21, he needs a big year with new club Bangkok United to demonstrate that he has the potential to become a worthy successor to Teerasil. The same applies to Chenrop Sampaodi, who has joined Muang Thong from Police Tero.

It is also time for Buriram United's young attacking talents Anon Amornlerdsak and Supachok Sarachat to become more consistent.

With Teerasil moving to Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the J.League in 2018, the onus is on another Thai striker to impress and suggest the future is brighter than it currently appears.

Clubs must put more trust in their young players and help them to develop, instead of always going for more experienced and proven option.

5. A starring role for ASEAN imports

This season, T1 will introduce a place for players in the ASEAN region in their squads. This has encouraged clubs to look closely at the countries around them rather than sticking to the more common sources of overseas talent.

And there have been a number of eye-catching signings as the new season approaches.

Myanmar strikers Aung Thu and Kyaw Ko Ko have signed for Police Tero and Chiang Rai United respectively. Singapore midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin has moved to Chonburi, while naturalised Vietnamese striker Hoang Vu Samson has joined Buriram.

More is sure to follow between now and the first league games in February.

Introducing this quota is a huge opportunity for Thailand to consolidate its position as the top league in the region and also to increase its geographical appeal, with neighbouring countries taking more of an interest.

Success of the players on the pitch will be necessary to make this experiment work. It will surely be mutually beneficial if some of these ASEAN players can become stars of T1.