Al-Karamah's number five. Don't make him angry!
The signs that this would be a special night came early. The singing from the Ultras' South Stand could be heard from a good distance a full thirty minutes before kick off. Usually the fans don't warm up their vocal cords until ten minutes before match time. My own home, the North Stand, was full of home fans including lots of new faces as well as the now well established 'n-zone' group creating - person for person - as much noise as the Ultras and generating a great atmosphere for this crucial game. Crucial not only for Muangthong, but for Thai football.
The line up was Kawin (GK), Piyachart (LB), Panupong (CB), Nattaporn (capt, CB), Keawprom (RB), Pitchipong (MD), Datsakorn (MD), Siaka (MD), Kone (AM), Terasil (ST), Christian (FW). Jetsada is still injured, so the armband went to Nattaporn.
The most notable thing about Al-Karamah was that their number five either lives atop a beanstalk, used to be WWE champion or is the result of some radioactive experiment. This goliath of a man nearly stepped on his own goalkeeper in the team huddle. It was scary to see.
Muangthong flew out of the traps and the game immediately became a fast-paced and skillful affair between two teams of a very equal standard. Teerasil lead the Muangthong barrage supported by a dynamic midfield with the usual long range efforts by Datsakorn and some chancers from the rest of the midfield.
I was immediately filled with optimism, not only by our bright start but by the Al-Karamah goalie, who seemed to have a very Latin style of palming away even mild efforts on goal. Nothing seemed to stay in his hands. You always have a chance against a goalie like that.
Al-Karamah continued to look capable on the break but there was no doubt which team looked more likely to score. The time wasting began - by my watch - on seven minutes when Al-Karamah's goalie palmed away an effort by Christian and spent seven minutes rolling around as a result. Afterwards, Muangthong won a whole series of corners that came close but couldn't quite breach a well organised and physically huge back line.
It needed something special to break the deadlock and overcome the first leg deficit. So, which player has produced several moments of magic this season when we needed it most? Yep, Datsakorn Thonglao scored another cracker, this time with slightly more curl and slightly less distance but perhaps the most important goal he's ever scored for his club. The celebrations were awesome.
The game continued at the same pace. Al-Karamah did play some nice through balls to their strikers but their very narrow game meant that Panupong and Nattaporn were always ready to intercept them and the defensive duo never shied away from the physical challenges. Around the thirty minute mark, Christian made a brilliant run into the opposition area, beating two men with a mazy dribble that clearly had them panicked. Christian then went down and the ref gave the penalty. It was at the other end of the pitch and I haven't seen any replays yet but it certainly looked justified. Dagno lined up and did the business. We were two-nil up. Happy days.
A little aside before I discuss the second half: throughout the first half, Al-Karamah's substitutes were warming up near the 'n-zone' group who were giving them the usual Thai banter: waved arms, thumbs down and boos. Nothing more malicious than that. At the time the penalty was given, Karamah's number twenty one began to make the finger-rubbing "money" gesture to some fans - kids, no less - in the stand. When Dagno scored the penalty, the same player ran to the 'n-zone' cheerleader and made the same gesture. Well mister twenty one, this doesn't strike me as very professional behaviour. You were at the opposite end of the pitch and were warming up when the penalty was given, so you shouldn't make such an accusation. Secondly, you might want to be a bit more careful. Had you been at Thai Port Stadium instead of the Thunderdome, fans might not have been so restrained in their reaction to your attitude.
To be fair, the same player continued the banter in the second half in a more light-hearted manner, but someone needs to tell him not to do leg stretches on the fence facing the fans in Thailand. No doubt it was innocent but again, fans of other teams might take the foot pointing so reservedly.
The second half was more of the same but with a bit more possession by Al-Karamah. However although they are an able side, Al-Karamah seemed to lack the pace to create too many threats. "Fi-fai-fo-fum" number five came up for a corner - towering over Kawin in the build up - and of course won the header but Kawin was equal to the effort and collected comfortably.
The clock ran down and MTU - to their huge credit - had only one stretcher injury in the entire second half. The final whistle went and the celebration started. The only downside to the jubilation was the immediate rush towards the ref by several Al-Karamah staff. Security guards surrounded the officials but still the coach leaned over them and sarcastically clapped his hands in the ref's face. There was absolutely no need for this. The ref was very balanced in my opinion and the better team won the game. The penalty may be controversial but we also had a strong claim in the second half turned down. I hope the coach will apologise when he's calmed down. Al-Karamah players did not stay to say goodbye to the home fans. Perhaps it's not the culture in Syria. In any case, MTU players did a lap of honour and the joy was on everyone's face.
Two important things need to be mentioned now. First, MTU took it to a new level tonight. I usually compare the standard of Thai football to the English League 1 or 2, but this show was something much better. Indeed, it was by far the best performance the club have ever put on. Second, those who imply Muangthong fans are plastic, lacking in passion, etc. can pour some chilli sauce over their words and munch away. Tonight's passion and dedication to spurring the team on to the next level was fantastic. It was a privilege to be a part of it.
Man of the match is an agonising decision - Teerasil lead the front line brilliantly, Kawin was his usual shot-stopping, area-commanding, confident self, Kone and Siaka chased every lost cause and closed down every defender, Christian's brilliant dribble won the penalty, Datsakorn did the obvious, Nattaporn and Panupong stood tall all night.
So in my indecision, I turned to Matt who nominated midfield dynamo Pitchipong Choeichiu as MOTM and also summed up the night thus: "We have arrived. The scale of tonight is hard to fathom. Bring it on!"