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AFC Preview: FC Seoul vs. Shandong Luneng Taishan FC

FC Seoul are back in action on Tuesday as Shandong Luneng come to Korea for the return leg of the AFC Champions League group stage.  They played three weeks ago and not much has changed since then.  Seoul won 4-1 as they tore Shandong's midfield and defense to pieces.  Since then, Seoul have played twice and won by an aggregate of 7-1 while the Chinese Super League was off for three weeks, although Shandong did play on Saturday and lost to Hangzhou Greentown 2-0.

I wrote extensively about Shandong three weeks ago and how I felt like they were a team that was best set up to counter attack.  I predicted that Shandong would concede possession and use Diego Tardelli's skill and speed to hit Seoul on the break.  I predicted that Seoul would win, but it would be difficult.

None of that came true.  Seoul did win, but it was quite comfortable and often, they looked liked Barcelona.  Shandong did score, but it was not on a break.  Rather, it came from one of Seoul's shortest players, Go Yo-han, trying to mark one of Shandong's biggest players, Jucilei.  Besides that blemish, Seoul played about as near a perfect game as can be had.

Shandong have had a rough go in the Chinese Super League.  In their opening fixture they were destroyed by Jiangsu 3-0.  I cannot find any video of the game, just highlight clips.  However, Ramires first goal seemed to be of the route one variety- a long kick from the keeper and a knockdown.  Alex Teixeira bagged a brace to round out the scoring.  Not a great start at all.  Shandong had pretty much all of the possession, but that is probably because Ramires scored in the 3rd minute and Jiangsu decided to play on the counter.  Looking at the amount of shots they had, it seems like they did not do much with their possession either.

In their second game against Liaoning Whowin they looked much better, coming away with a 3-2 win.  They conceded from a set piece, but after that they hit back with three goals.  Lioaning Whowin got a second, but it was in the 91st minute.  Shandong also had more possession than their opponent again and failed to create more shots.  It seems as though their opponent often resorted to fouling them to stop play, so maybe that is why there are not many shots created for Shandong.

In their third game, Shandong came away losers to Hangzhou Greentown FC 2-0.  I cannot find video on You Tube, so I will link it via the CSL Facebook page.  Again, they had over 60% of the possession but could not do much with the ball as they only created five shots and two corners.  Unlike their last opponent, they cannot blame persistent fouling as both teams were even in that department.

Shandong, in what I would think is an alarming pattern, conceded the first goal early again and off of a long ball.   In the image below, Feng Gang (circle) sends a ball over the top for Luo Jing to run onto.  He is looks pretty well marked by Dai Lin.

(Chinese Super League Facebook Page)

In the image below, I circled the ball, put a horizontal line under Luo Jing and a vertical line next to Dai Lin (I think it is him).  Dai is close, he probably should have cut the ball out.  That could not have been good to concede a goal like that in the first ten minutes.

(Chinese Super League Facebook Page)

The second goal arrived five minutes later and it originated from a counter as Shandong had pushed their line up looking for an equalizer.  The first shows Angan running through into space to get the ball.  There are two defenders back, so this should probably be handled.

(Chinese Super League Facebook Page) 
In the second image, Angan has sprinted past the orange circle and the defender closest to him cannot catch him either.  I think these two images demonstrate how Shandong's defense is susceptible to speedy counter-attacks as their CBs seem to lack pace.  Seoul should look to exploit this with the speed of Adriano.

(Chinese Super League Facebook Page)
Another worrying trend for Shandong is their penchant for conceding early.  In all four of their losses, they conceded before 30 minutes and in two, before ten minutes.  Here are the results:
  • Ramires scored in the 3rd minute for Jiangsu (1st game)
  • Chamanga scored in the 20th minute (2nd game)
  • Luo Jing scored in the 8th minute (3rd game)
  • Adriano scored in the 28th minute (ACL game)
I would say that this shows a team that is not adequately prepared to start games.  Both goals against Jiangsu and Hangzhou Greentown were from long balls that the defense should have cut out.  Communication, confidence, and consistency are three things that are lacking in Shandong's defense right now.

Seoul Formation and Line-up

Park Chu-young started for Adriano on Saturday, but he played a full 90 minutes, so I do not see him starting again if he still recovering from his knee injury.  Kim Dong-woo sat on Saturday, but I think he will be back Tuesday.  Dejan might sit, but with this being such an important game, I think he will start again as Choi subbed him out around the 65th minute on Saturday.  

What to Expect

Seoul are in great shape.  They have won all three of their games and lead their nearest opponent with a goal differential of eleven.  I would say that qualification is all but assured and as long as they do not lose their next three games, should win their group.  

Shandong are still in good shape to qualify for the second round.  With six points, they are second in the group and three points ahead of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.  A win over Seoul on Tuesday would be massive and throw the group in disarray.  However, a loss for Shandong would be even more of a disaster for them it would Seoul.  

If Shandong lose and Hiroshima win on the road against Burriram, which is a distinct possibility, then Shandong and Hiroshima would be level on points.  Only goal differential would separate them and if I were betting, I think Hiroshima will make up the two goal differential this week.  Buriram, with zero goals scored and twelve conceded, are clearly the group's whipping boy.  

That is why I think both team will be happy with a draw.  If Seoul get a point, they maintain their lead at the top and are closer to wrapping up the group.  Their next opponent will be the aforementioned whipping boy, whom Seoul tagged for six goals on the road.  Seoul could have the group wrapped up by then and be able to rest their starters in the last group game, which will be immense as the season progresses.  

If Shandong get a draw, they are still at least one point above Hiroshima and the two meet up in Jinan on April 20th for what could be considered the penultimate match of the group.  As the home team, Shandong must fancy their chances to take all three points in that game.  That is why I think Shandong will play conservatively and go for a draw or at least try not to lose by more than a goal.  

Their Brazilian defender Gil sat on Saturday, but I think he will be back in the line-up on Tuesday and Li Wei will not.  As I mentioned above, that pairing seemed susceptible to speedy counterattacks and a player such as Adriano could utilize his speed to roast both of them.  Last year's Golden Boot winner Aliosio started for them, but I think he will be a spectator on Tuesday as I expect that Shandong will want Tardelli and Jucilei to play.  

I do not envy their manager Mario Menezes.  His team was ripped to shreds by Seoul last time out and their defense is a mess right now.  In their last meeting, I think Shandong felt confident enough to have a go at Seoul, but I do not think that is the case now.  Having lost 4-1 at home is not good, but being beaten in their last game is even worse.  The team is in poor form right now and if Menezes keeps losing, he will probably be out the door soon.  With the money being spent in the Chinese Super League, and even by Shandong themselves, defeat is not an option.  

Seoul, on the other hand, are a team in great form.  They won quite handily against Sangju Sangmu and Saturday's win over Incheon was the most comfortable and easy 3-1 win I have seen in a long time.  In both of those games Seoul came out strong, pressed their opponent hard, and got an early goal.  I think Choi Yong-soo will adopt that same plan against Shandong as well.  

Offensively, it is obvious how much Seoul have improved since last year.  Getting Adriano mid-season was a game changer and saved the season and maybe even Choi Yong-soo's job.  Dejan's return has been an even bigger boost as the team seems to play with confidence and a joy that has been missing these last two years.  Ju Se-jong, Shin Jin-ho, and Takahagi have combined to create, in my opinion, the best midfield in the K-League (maybe even in Asia right now).  

However, I think what has improved the most is Seoul's pressing.  Here is an image from kickoff.  In the first five seconds, Incheon play the ball back you can see Dejan (the black circle) run at the defender on the left (oval) who passes to Jonic (heart, in the middle).  Dejan changes course and goes toward Jonjic.  Park Chu-young (black square) runs at the defender on top (triangle) to cut off the pass from there and force Jonjic to kick it long.  Pressing from the front- simple yet effective.  

(SPOTV via youtube.com)
Often times, Incheon's keeper Kim Da-sol (the third keeper in three games- not a good sign for Incheon) would be forced to kick the ball towards the center circle.  At that point, Seoul's midfield would do well to win it back.  Unfortunately, I cannot find much in the highlights to demonstrate this, but I remember Takahagi winning the ball back at the 10 minute mark and being impressed because that is not something that would have happened last year in my opinion.  

Right now, with the form that Seoul are in, I cannot imagine them losing this game.  Shandong, as I have mentioned previously, are terribly defensively.  They have done well in the ACL but probably did not deserve to win in Hiroshima.  As long as Seoul are not overconfident and take this team seriously, then I think they will get a result.  Their pressing has been strong, Adriano has been in good form, and the midfield and defense are clicking.  

Final Score: FC Seoul 3-1 Shandong Luneng

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