Thai ace Chanathip to face Malaysian champions JDT in ACL playoff

Loan deals for three of Thailand's most promising young talents -- including Chanathip 'Messi J' Songkrasin -- have given Muang Thong United a major boost ahead of the AFC Champions League preliminary round clash with Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) on Feb. 2.

Playmaker Chanathip has signed on for a year at the SCG Stadium, along with defenders Tanaboon Kesarat and Peerapat Notchaiya -- from troubled BEC Tero Sasana.

The addition of the talented trio -- all 22 years old -- is a welcome lift for Muang Thong fans, having lost their star player and talisman Mario Gjurovski at the end of last season. It also represents an early gift for head coach Totchtawan Sripan, who took over from the departing Dragan Talajic just last week.

Muang Thong will hope that the addition of the three international stars will help strengthen the team sufficiently to qualify for the group stages of this year's AFC Champions League (ACL). First, they must negotiate a tough tie at home to JDT next week. If they get through that, they will face a play-off at Shanghai SIPG.

The Kirins have not featured in the ACL group stages since 2013 and will hope that their new boys hit the ground running in time to help them defeat two difficult opponents. Speculation on the future of Tero's young Thai stars -- several of whom are regulars in the national team -- had been ongoing since the 2015 Thai Premier League (TPL) season ended, with persistent rumours that Chanathip may be in line for a move to Japan.

But Messi J -- who captained Thailand in the AFC U23 Championships in Qatar this month -- has opted to stay in his homeland and attempt to help the Kirins as they bid for their first TPL title since 2012.

The loan release of the three players is another twist in the recent troubles of BEC Tero. The club were relegated in 2015, only to be handed a lifeline when the TPL announced that the top tier would be expanded to 20 teams in the new season. This expansion granted Tero a convenient reprieve but there has been strong opposition to the move from other sides, forcing the TPL to reconsider.

In the meantime, ownership of the club has changed hands and the loss of three of their best players comes at an interesting time. In addition to the loan deals for Chanathip and Co., some of their other top players have been linked with moves to TPL rivals.

Muang Thong fans will just be happy that Chanathip -- Tero's most prized asset -- has chosen to strengthen their cause. Starting next week, the Kirins will attempt to go further in the ACL and then prepare to do battle with champions Buriram United on the domestic front once again.