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Writer's Chat: FC Tokyo vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors AFC Preview

FC Tokyo host Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the AFC Asian Champions League. J.League Regista and K-League United preview the upcoming clash.
Wednesday night sees a mouth-watering contest between the the two top teams in Group E as FC Tokyo play host to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. With Jiangsu Suning lurking close by in third place, neither of these two teams will want to slip up in Tokyo. J-League Regista's Stuart speaks with our site's Jeonbuk correspondent Matthew Binns (myself) about what we can expect from this fixture.

Matt Asks, Stuart Answers

Matthew Binns: FC Tokyo are currently leading the group after an impressive victory away to Jiangsu Suning. With their destiny in their own hands, do you feel FC Tokyo will go on to win this qualification group?

Stuart: That's tough to say, although they will take great heart from the way they withstood the trip to Nanjing in the last round of games. Every team would like to be in Tokyo's position and with a home game against Jeonbuk and an away game in Vietnam you'd say they look slight favourites to top the group.

MB: While it is admittedly early days, Tokyo find themselves mid-table in the J1 League. How do you feel the league campaign has gone so far and are they performing below expectations?

S: Not too many people were enamoured when Hiroshi Jofuku was hired to replace outgoing manager Massimo Ficcadenti. Jofuku did some decent work with the relatively small Ventforet Kofu but FC Tokyo supporters probably had their eyes on higher profile managers. He started off with a 9-0 thumping of Chonburi in the ACL qualifier, but since then it has been a bit Jekyll & Hyde. They've mixed in good wins against Vegalta Sendai & Nagoya Grampus with pretty depressing defeats at home to Omiya Ardija and last week away at struggling Kashiwa Reysol. Tokyo's most recent game was a 2-4 defeat against bitter rivals Kawasaki Frontale, so they aren't coming into this game on a high.

It is always hard trying to project FC Tokyo because while they carry the name of Japan's capital city, and the kudos that entails, they don't really seem to spend the money that one would think they have. Last year they lost the excellent pair of striker Yoshinori Muto (who moved to Mainz in the Bundesliga) and full back Kosuke Ota (who moved to the Netherlands) and didn't really fork out too much coin to replace them. They should be above mid-table, but I don't really consider them in with a title chance.

MB: Tokyo have been struggling for goals in the league recently, despite their ACL performance. Where do you see the goals coming from in the upcoming clash with Jeonbuk?

S: Since Yoshinori Muto left in the middle of last year, Tokyo have struggled going forward. Recently, Japanese international defender Masato Morishige has taken on the mantle of goalscorer, notching two in the recent win against Nagoya (in addition to being sent off) as well as plundering the goals that saw Tokyo to victory in China last time out.

Jofuku usually likes to line up in a 4-4-2 formation, and Ryoichi Maeda is, or has been this season, one of the preferred strikers. He has good positional sense, but being the wrong side of thirty has taken what little pace he had in the first place away from him. Takuma Abe can be best described as "bustling", but wide players Keigo Higashi and Kota Mizunuma do have the ability to be creative down the flanks. A wild card might be Australian forward Nathan Burns. He played really well against Jiangsu, is coming off a goal in the "Tamagawa Clasico" - the big derby between Tokyo & Kawasaki Frontale - and it seems like he is just rounding into both fitness & form.

MB: Whilst Jeonbuk did not have the best of games against Binh Duong, it is expected the manager will be bringing his strongest line-up to Japan. Do you see any particular changes to how FC Tokyo will line-up for this fixture?

S: As I said before, Jofuku has been a steady 4-4-2 guy, and I don't really see that changing. Of course, he will have studied the opening group game and tried to identify Jeonbuk weaknesses, but I don't see that Tokyo are equipped to make that many structural changes. Tokyo will be missing their defensive totem Morishige due to suspension - a feeling almost as common to him as scoring recently - so they could have issues in the heart of their defence.

MB: Finally, what is your prediction for this match?

S: I'm of the view that this game has a lot more riding on it for Jeonbuk that it does for Tokyo. I think Tokyo would settle for a draw if it was offered to them before the game and I can see a scenario in which they set up to do exactly that. I'll go with a 1-1 draw.

The last time these two teams met in Jeonju, it resulted in a 2-1 victory to the home team. (Photo Credit: Howard Cheng)
The last time these two teams met in Jeonju, it resulted in a 2-1 victory to the home team. (Photo Credit: Howard Cheng)
Stuart Asks, Matthew Answers

Stuart: Jeonbuk have had a mixed ACL thus far, culminating in the "shock" 3-2 defeat in Vietnam last time out. Is there any particular reason they have been inconsistent?

Matthew Binns: Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee has been widely criticised for his rotation policy, averaging five changes to the line-up between each game across all competitions. Considering goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae has been the only player with a 100% attendance, it means normally Jeonbuk change half of their outfield players for each match. This understandably has had a negative effect on their consistency.

The manager has also not selected the same starting eleven twice this year, suggesting he may still not know who his strongest team is. After buying so many players in the winter, hardly any have been given a decent run of games to fairly criticise either.

Whilst I agree rotation is necessary when balancing continental and domestic competitions, the way Choi has managed this has been too wild and varied. It has been very difficult to determine which team will turn up, both in terms of line-up and playing mentality.

S: It is still early days in the K.League Classic, but a dramatic win this weekend saw them maintain their unbeaten start. What have you made of Jeonbuk's form so far? 

MB: Jeonbuk's form has been notably underwhelming this year, regardless of how the league table looks. They are still yet to win on the road in any competition, and have not always been dominant at home, only winning by more than one goal in their AFC fixture against Becamex Binh Duong.

Sometimes their potential has threatened to show through. The new players they have signed are admittedly talented, with many predicting them to walk the league this season, yet the manager has more than often decided to wedge them in to his, at times, archaic route-one tactics.

The fortunate unbeaten domestic form also masks a wobbly defence, most evident when they lost to Binh Duong 3-2 in the last round of AFC games. Jeonbuk sold their best defender for a record $6 million to Shanghai Shenhua, four days prior to the home tie of the FC Tokyo clash. Heavy rotation, unnecessary red cards and the manager's peculiar continued exile of recently acquired DM Erik Paartalu, have added pressure to this new defensive line-up who are still struggling to settle.

Despite all of this though, if a consistent starting eleven can be found, I am optimistic that Jeonbuk will return to more convincing form. The recent return from injury of new signing Kim Bo-kyung, who has started the last three matches in apparent preparation for this game, will also help with this.

S: In what areas of the pitch do you think that Jeonbuk will fancy their chances of dominating? And on the flip side, which part of their team do you sense is a weakness for them?

MB: As mentioned, their biggest weakness is their defence. Most games have featured a preventable goal conceded and, with Kim Chang-soo and Kim Hyung-il both seeing red against Binh Duong in the last round, they will be fielding a youthful back line. Expect Lim Jong-eun, and Choi Kyu-baek in the centre to start, with the wing backs most likely comprised of Choi Chul-soon and one other (most likely Choi Jae-soo).

Jeonbuk's attacking potential is their biggest strength. If a strong line-up start, with a central midfield comprised of Korean national team player Lee Jae-sung and ex-Premier League player Kim Bo-kyung, wingers Leonardo and Ko Mo-yeol, and Lee Jong-ho and Lee Dong-gook spearheading the attack, then Jeonbuk will be in with a fighting chance.

If Kim Shin-wook starts though (and he is on the plane), then it is likely the manager has regressed into his conservative ways and FC Tokyo will be expected to defend a lot of high crosses.

S: In the context of the group, do you think that Jeonbuk HAVE to win this game?

Not necessarily, although it would definitely be far more preferable. Jeonbuk do have good home form, which should help seeing as qualification almost certainly will come down to the final round. It would make things undeniably easier to win in Tokyo though, especially as Jeonbuk struggled when they faced Jiangsu back at the start of March.

Jeonbuk should be aiming to top the group however in a bid for a preferable knockout fixture. They will more than likely be required to beat FC Tokyo if they want to achieve this so they should not be aiming for anything less than the three points on offer.

S: Finally, what do you think the score will be?

MB: While victory for Jeonbuk is crucial to win the group, I also see this being a 1-1 draw based on current form. Jeonbuk are yet to win away from home, and FC Tokyo will most likely defend heavily to ensure they maintain their poll position to progress to the knockouts.

Predicted Score: FC Tokyo 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

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