The Chiang Mai derby; red or blue?

Chiang Mai football fans have just a few more days to wait until the first ever competitive match between the city’s two senior professional football clubs.
On Saturday December 19th Chiang Mai FC (Blue) host Chiang Mai United (Red) at the Municipal Stadium in the second tier of the Thai League – the M150 Championship.

For followers of both clubs this will be a special occasion; though sadly the crowd will be limited by the Thai League’s coronavirus regulations limiting the crowds to 50% of stadium capacity. There is a chance this could be increased.

Some background

This season started back in February 2020 with just four games played before a six-month shut-down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Saturday’s match will be the last of the first round of matches with the Chiang Mai teams currently 3rd and 7th in a very competitive Thai Championship.

This is also the last game before the mid-season transfer window which will bring changes to the squads of both teams.

Founded in 1999 Chiang Mai FC (CMFC) is the longer established, and more widely-supported club among both Thais and foreigners living in the city. The Thai language CMFC fan club page on Facebook ( เชียงใหม่เอฟซี-แฟนคลับ) has 24,000 followers. The Chiang Mai FC English fanzine, also on Facebook, has over 10,000 followers.

2018 was a heady time for CMFC with 3rd place in the Championship enough to gain promotion to the Toyota Thai League (the Thai Premiership) for 2019. While supporters were able to visit the likes of Buriram, Port and Ratchaburi, the team based around a core of loan players from Chiang Rai struggled and the club was relegated back to the Championship for 2020.

Before the start of this season ownership of the club passed to BG Pathum United.

Chiang Mai United (CMU) is the precocious upstart of Chiang Mai football. Founded in 2015 as Changphueak Chiangmai the club won the Thai League 3 Upper Region in 2018 to be automatically promoted to the Championship for 2019.

In 2017, the club was renamed to JL Chiangmai United with Jele as the team main sponsor. In 2020, the club was renamed to Chiangmai United.

After consolidating their position in League 2 last season with an 11th place finish big changes were made for the 2020 season as the club invested in building a promotion seeking team.

However, the first problem for both teams was where to play. The 700th Anniversary stadium that the clubs had shared until the midpoint of the 2019 season was not available due to endlessly delayed renovations. CMFC made arrangement to play at the Municipal Stadium. Funds were found from BG Glass for renovations that included new seating, pitch improvements and club branding. Within walking distance of the old city it is a fun place to watch football, unless you are an away fan banished into a distant temporary stand behind the north side goal.

CMU meanwhile moved out to the small stadium at the Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna in Doi Saket. Some 30 minutes’ drive from central Chiang Mai, surrounded by countryside it is an unlikely place to watch professional football. Again money was invested; seats installed, flood-lighting improved, temporary stands build for home and away supporters; a new scoreboard was added and improvements made to what is now one of the better playing surfaces in the league. CMU have made the ground home and once you have found it (google is your friend) it is an attractive ground to visit.

2020 season

There are two automatic promotion places with the teams finishing from 3rd to 6th playing off of the 3rd promotion spot.

Nongbua Pitchaya FC who have invested heavily in a new stadium and a strong squad lead the Championship by seven points and are unbeaten this season. Even now they look like league champions.

The battle for second place is between any of the next six teams, which include CMFC (7th) and CMU (3rd).

CMFC’s progress will depend in large part on the commitment of the club’s owner, BG Pathum United. Nine of the current squad are on loan from BG; while it is unlikely that BG’s league leading first team will need any of the loan players returned, the players may be moved to other teams under the same ownership such as Rajpracha in League 3 West.

The departure of Namibian journeyman striker Sadney Urikhob has already been announced. He did not play last weekend at Udon Thani and is unlikely to play in the derby.

Ryo Matsumura, signed from Rayong, has been the pick of the new foreign players with nine league goals, from the 30 scored by CMFC, as well as three in the two FA Cup games played so far. Ryo does not do tap ins or scruffy goals; his goals are almost always highlights-reel quality.

It has been a strange season for CMFC supporters; there have been some outstanding performances; Kasetsart and Chainat were both beaten 5-0. A single goal was enough to beat a strong Khon Kaen United side. Away wins at Ranong, in appalling conditions, Customs and Phrae were all impressive. But Nongbua came to CMFC and scored five, and away defeats at Lampang and Udon Thani were disappointing, not just the results but also the performances.

Meanwhile CMU started their season by building a new squad based around a core group who moved from CMFC. Carlos Parreira was a popular choice as manager. He had previously led CMFC’s 2018 promotion campaign. Ex CMFC favorite Evson Patrício joined along with goalkeepers Nont and Pairot, and defenders Saharat and Surawich. Ghanaian international Dominic Adiyiah came from Sisaket. Joined by Melvin de Leeuw from Lampang FC and Jeong Woo-geun, who was leading scorer for Ayutthaya last season

The powerful Thai striker Thawin joined CMU from Thai Honda. Kyaw Ko Ko, the Myanmar international looks ready to play a significant role in the second half of the season.

For eleven games CMU were unbeaten. Big wins away at Uthai Thani and at home to Udon Thani saw CMU as a serious promotion contender. And then came the unexpected.

The first change saw CMU’s founder and chairman Chuchai Lertpongadisorn stepping down to pursue his political career. Preecha Sukboonpun, already a board member, became the new Chairman.

Coach Carlos Parreira then announced that he was leaving the club. A bad defeat at home to Khon Kaen United followed, together with a draw away at Ranong and a second defeat for the season at home to Ayutthaya.

Dennis Amato, previously coach at Chainat Hornbill, was appointed by CMU. It was also announced that Evson (for Sukhothai) and Dominic Adiyah (out of contract) would leave the club. Replacements have already been announced in Evandro Paulista and big defender Narongrit Boonsuk who will be available in the second half of the season starting from 26 December. Yeo Sunghae, a centre half, has also joined CMU from Ratchaburi where he has started ten games this season.

Goals have come mainly from the strike duo of Melvin de Leeuw with nine, and Thawin with seven.

Amato appears to have now settled with his new club. A battling away win at Navy won with a fabulous volley from de Leeuw, was followed by an emphatic 3-0 win over Lampang last weekend.

What to expect

Hopefully a great atmosphere. There are plenty of fans who follow both clubs. That might be heresy for some; like supporting both Liverpool and Everton. But if Chiang Mai can be home for two successful football teams then that can only be good for sport in the city.

After last weekend the momentum is with CMU. That said CMFC have only lost once at home this season, to Nongbua).

The two sides play very different football. CMU is the more powerful side and will move the ball forward quickly to de Leeuw as their target man and to wide players in Masuk and Jeong. Evson is likely to play and his battle with Ryo will be fun to watch.

After a difficult season with CMFC in the Toyota Thai League Nont has been very good in goal for CMU this season; his handling and decision making against Lampang were near faultless.

Expect a more patient style from CMFC. Happy to build from the back line and to look for chances to move the ball forward. Then resetting and starting again. A more continental style that reflects the fact that CMFC do not have a big centre forward who can hold the ball up.

CMFC’s stronger performances have also come in the second half of matches this season so expect them to keep the game as tight as possible for the first 45 minutes.

Ryo will likely start up front with Nattachai. On loan goalkeeper Korraphat has been capable, if not entirely convincing.

The likely back three is Eakkaluk, Athibordee (both on loan from BG) and fan favourite, Meedech, who gives heart and soul to every game he plays although Meedech may miss out if Spaniard Dennis Nieblas returns at centre half.

Yuki Bamba plays in front of the back three and is there to tackle, disrupt and clean up, which he does very effectively. He covers a lot of ground.

Atthawit is in central midfield and is the playmaker, sometimes over-elaborating but often producing the pass that starts a new attack. He also gave fans the celebration of the season after his goal at Phrae.

CMFC play with two wide wing halves in Samroeng and Apisit Sorada. Both are more effective going forward than defending and the space behind them was exploited by Udon Thani last weekend.

The problem for CMFC may again prove to be the lack of options on the bench. Nattachai, Nattapoom and Kongnateechai are almost interchangeable up front playing in very similar ways. At Udon Thani the club listed just six substitutes (nine are allowed) including the reserve goalkeeper. The squad looks thin.

If CMFC is to seriously content for a promotion or play-off spot then the squad will need to be strengthened for the second half of the season. The arrival of the big Brazilian Jonathan Bernardo from Ranong to replace Sadney in the second half of the season has now been announced. This may not be a change for the better.

CMU will be without Thawin, serving the second of his two-match ban after being sent off at Navy. Jeong played alongside de Leeuw against Lampang but it would not be a surprise to see Jeong playing wide while Myanmar international Kyaw Ko Ko could make his first start.

Evson is expected to play. It might be impossible to stop him from playing! His commitment and personality have made him a firm favourite with Chiang Mai fans and he will get a great send-off as he leaves the city.

Ronnapee did not play against Lampang but a return in defense alongside Evson is probable. Masuk is likely to play as a genuine right winger – he could be up against the fearless Meedech. Another good contest.

CMU do have more game-changing options on the bench and that may be decisive.

Kick-off is at 7pm on Saturday. Ticket details will be on the CMFC Facebook page and there will be some tickets available for sale on the day. Hopefully the fans will see something special. An early Christmas cracker. A game of goals and controversy. A game to talk about and debate over turkey dinners and new year festivities. A prediction – I will leave that to people braver than me. I do, however, think that there will be at least one Chiang Mai club playing in the Toyota Thai League next season.

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