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Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Melbourne Victory AFC Preview

The 4th round of ACL fixtures get underway this week and it is D-day in group G as Suwon Bluewings host Melbourne Victory with only 3 points seperating the two teams. Our own Scottt Whitelock spoke to East Asian Soccer's Lew Dub about what we can expect from the match. 

Scott asks, Lew Answers

Scott Whitelock: The first meeting between these two teams ended in a boring, mostly uneventful 0-0 draw. What went wrong for Melbourne on that night and why couldn't they beat an extremely weakened and inexperienced Suwon team?

Lew Dub: Well Melbourne Victory will definitely look back at that night as an opportunity lost. On paper it was a very makeshift Suwon Bluewings. To their credit though, the K-League club executed a game plan to frustrate in defence and choose their moments in attack. 

Something that is widely recognised in Australia is the ability of K-League clubs to match the physicality of A-League clubs. Suwon matched Melbourne physically, and by the end of the ninety minutes, Melbourne Victory linchpin Besart Berisha was one of a number of Melbourne players resorting to niggling tactics. 

On a personnel level Melbourne took the field without regular attacking midfielder Oliver Bozanic. Bozanic has played a linking role between defence and attack for Melbourne Victory this season, and based on stats, there was something missing in that department in the previous fixture. Melbourne Victory had 58% possession and six corners to zero, yet they only managed five shots on goal - the same as the Bluewings. 

Additionally, Suwon nullified the attacking threat of right sided forward Kostas Barbarouses. Though the Kiwi had highly involvement, he was marshalled well and when dribbling options were shut down, his crosses were successfully cleared or blocked. 

If Kevin Muscat is placing as much importance on the ACL as he says, he’ll start with Bozanic in midfield and also swap Jai Ingham for Archie Thompson as the left sided forward in Melbourne’s 4-3-3 (4-2-3-1). Statesman Thompson has been a tremendous contributor for Australia’s biggest club from the outset of the A-League, but age dictates that he can’t provide the same service for 90 minutes as he did once before. 

Scott Whitelock: Group G is still very much open and no team has yet to really take control of it. For Suwon this game is probably a 'must win' game if they are to progress to the knockout stage. What do Melbourne expect to take from this game? Would the Melbourne supporters be happy with a draw?

Lew Dub: Victory fans would happily take one point from South Korea. The point about a point in Suwon is that Melbourne Victory keep moving forward and their opponent stays behind them. 

With just one home game remaining Melbourne Victory will be looking to stay in the fight until that last night of the Group Stage when they host Gamba Osaka. In the meantime, the fixture list ensures that Melbourne Victory will have their fate in their own hands, if they get at least a point against Suwon.

While Victory fans will be happy with a point, they won’t be happy with a loss. They’re a demanding lot, and manager Muscat has always had his detractors. 

Scott Whitelock: Melbourne Victory have certainly been the 'surprise package' in the group stage so far. Not many people expected them to make a significant challenge in a group that contained Shanghai SIPG, Gamba Osaka and Suwon Bluewings, but they have upset the odds and currently sit in 2nd place in the group. What is the feeling among Melbourne fans about their prospects in this years competition and do Melbourne have any real chance of progressing to the latter stages of the competition?

Lew Dub: Melbourne fans are crying out for progress in the Asian Champions League. As noted previously, Melbourne Victory and their fans are eternally sounding out about being Australia’s biggest club, but regular failure in the ACL has been the kryptonite to any such argument. And while it’s obvious the fans covet success, they will also expect it now they’re in the position they are.

Myself, I’m not surprised at the club’s success and I certainly believe they’re a chance of progressing. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Melbourne Victory’s progress to date is the fact they’ve done it without stars Fahid Ben Kalfallah and Gui Finkler. Due to the ACL’s three foreigners and one Asian rule, manager Kevin Muscat was forced to withdraw two of his best domestic contributors.

Melbourne Victory’s recent wins over A-League frontrunners Western Sydney Wanderers and on Saturday against Wellington Phoenix will have restored the team’s confidence, in particular that of Oliver Bozanic who picked up both goals against Wanderers and one in Wellington.

Scott Whitelock: 4 days prior to this meeting, Melbourne make the long and arduous journey to face Wellington Phoenix FC in New Zealand. Do you expect the 3,000 mile round trip to have any effect on the Melbourne's players ability to perform? And if you expect the team to be fatigued, should they alter their style of play to remedy this?

Lew Dub:  Of course Melbourne will be affected by the journey to Wellington but on the bright side the A-League Champions made light work (1-4) of the Kiwi club. At home they’ve all but secured an A-League Play-offs berth, and for the time being (until the Play-offs) that’s the maximum they can achieve domestically. 

As Muscat has publicly declared the importance of the ACL I expect he will send the best attacking weapons he has. But for the events of the weekend I may have voiced an opposing opinion. However, striker Besart Berisha received a red card in the Wellington fixture, meaning the Albanian will get a week and a half rest before his next A-League fixture even if he travels to South Korea. 

On the other hand, Muscat may rest some of his defenders and midfielders, to ease the load on certain individuals. Simply playing for survival is not likely though. It’s not in the club’s DNA. Just like the Bluewings did when they visited Australia, Melbourne will likely pick their moments and use quick transitions to provide an attacking threat. 

One thing that may affect Muscat’s thinking is the trip to Shanghai in the next round of the ACL. Does he go for broke in South Korea, anticipating a tougher mission in China? Does he look to escape from Suwon with a point and go for it against Shanghai’s sometimes leaky defence? Such is the balancing act of the Asian Champions League. 

Scott Whitelock: Melbourne started the season extremely slowly but have been on a great run of form recently, only losing once in their last eight games. What has been the key to this run?

Lew Dub:  It’s an interesting way of looking at what most in Australia believe to be a serious downturn in form for the A-League’s Champions. While only losing once, Melbourne Victory have posted many draws, and this simply isn’t good enough for their demanding fans. 

Victory manager Kevin Muscat recently spoke of his and the team’s embarrassment due to their for slump. After knocking off Western Sydney Wanderers last week, Muscat said, “Walking around town wasn’t comfortable a couple of weeks ago.”  

So key to this run of form, is probably an ingrained competitive mentality amongst the playing group. Despite playing poorly Melbourne Victory have continued to register draws, preventing the chasing pack from overtaking them in the race for the A-League Play-Offs. 

Another key to Melbourne’s continued success or stability, has been the emergence of quality youngsters Jason Geria and Jai Ingham. The pair will play a strong role if Melbourne Victory continue to experience success in the Asian Champions League. 

Lew asks, Scott Answers

Lew Dubb: K-League United predicted 2016 would be a tough year for Suwon Bluewings. So far the experts are on the mark. Do you think the Bluewings will be prioritizing the K-League above the ACL? 

Scott Whitelock: I'm not quite sure about this. The ACL has always been very important to the Suwon Bluewings organisation and most fans where baffled by Seo Jung-won's squad and team selection in Australia. He did have the injuries of Kim Gun-hee and Kwon Chang-hoon to contend with but their were several notable first team players left at home for the game last month. It was an odd thing to do when the group is still in the balance and a win could have been crucial to us progressing from the group. However, his gamble paid off and Suwon were able to battle their way to a draw. A victory at home on Wednesday night would go some way to confirming that Jung-won's choice to rest players was, in fact, correct. 

In reality, Suwon can't win either the K League or the ACL. However, if they were to mount a challenge for either trophy you would imagine that the ACL would be the easiest to challenge for. There are less games to navigate and a team doesn't necessarily need to have exceptional form throughout the season. Therefore, I imagine that if Suwon can make it through the group stage then he will begin to prioritize the cup competitions over the K League. The emergency of Seoul's strong attack combined with Jeonbuk's winter spending spree has left Suwon with little chance of winning the K League so the ACL or the Korean FA cup may be Suwon's only chance for success this season.  
Lew Dub: Given a loss would mean Suwon are virtually out of contention in the ACL, do you expect the home team to settle for anything less than three points?

Scott Whitelock: Absolutely not. As you say, a loss would all but end our hopes of progressing but also a draw wouldn't help us very much either. Our next 2 ACL matches are a daunting trip to Gamba Osaka followed by an encounter with Shanghai SIPG in Suwon. I can only really imagine us taking 4 points from those 2 games (and that is extremely positive thinking) so it is vital that Suwon take all 3 points on Wednesday night. 

In recent weeks I have complained a lot about Seo Jung-won's gung-ho tactics at the beginning of this season. Suwon have been playing a very open and attacking 4-1-4-1 formation pushing all 4 midfielders up the pitch and trying to get as close to the striker as possible. In an attacking sense, it is working, as Suwon have scored 4 goals in their last 2 league games. The central attacking midfielders of Santos and Kwon Chang-hoon are combining well and have each netted 2 goals in 2 games. 

However, this formation leaves Suwon incredibly open to counter attacks and the sole defensive midfielder Park Hyun-bom is currently finding it difficult to contain teams. That is not a criticism of Hyun-bom though. He is a fine player and I have been very impressed with him this season. But the formation doesn't afford any support for him. With all 4 midfielders pushed so far up the pitch, as soon as a team can win the ball back they simply just need to play directly to their attackers and the Suwon defence has been immediately exposed. 

This happened once again at the weekend as Suwon faced Korea's military team Sangju Sangmu. Sangju play with a quick and mobile front three that rarely venture back towards their own goal and they were consistently a problem for Suwon. There wasn't much creativity in their play but they realised very quickly that Suwon's weak back line does not get a lot of cover from the midfield and so they would play quickly and efficiently to their front line. The centre forward would regularly drop off Suwon's centre back partnering of Lee Jung-soo and Koo Ja-ryoung and neither centre back knew if they were to go with him or keep their position. 9 times out of 10 they opted for the safer, latter option. As such, Sangju consistently caused Suwon problems and that is something that Melbourne should look to exploit. 

In a normal league game I would still criticize Seo Jung-won for implementing this formation, but with the current state of play in Group G Suwon need the 3 points and as such they should go all out for the win. It bodes to be an interesting game if they do. 

Lew Dub: Is there anyone that was spared from the first encounter that Melbourne Victory should watch out for in the upcoming fixture?

Scott Whitelock: As I mentioned above, for some strange reason Seo Jung-won decided to leave half of his first team at home for the 1st game between the two sides so you can expect to see a lot of new faces. Suwon produced an efficient, if not spectacular, performance against Sangju Sangmu at the weekend and barring any injuries, I expect the same starting 11 that day to play again against Melbourne. 

The obvious danger men that Melbourne should be wary of who were absent from the 1st game are Kwon Chang-hoon and Santos. As I mentioned before both players have scored 2 goals in 2 games and if they are given any time in the box they can be devastating. Santos has been disappointing so far this season and has recently been too quiet often drifting in and out of games. But at the weekend he produced a moment of magic to seal the victory for Suwon finding the bottom corner of the net from 25 yards out. Kwon Chang-hoon is probably the player that Melbourne should be most concerned with. He often likes to get beyond the striker and is always looking to play in behind the oppositions defenders. He also has a great array of passing and often drifts over to the left wing to link up with Yeom Ki-hun. It was this pairing that produced the goal scoring opportunity for Santos to net the winner against Sangju. Some neat one touch passing from Chang-hoon and Ki-hun sent the latter on his way to the by-line and his pull back was met by Santos who was able to shimmy and find himself some space. 

Yeom Ki-hun, Kwon Chang-hoon and Santos are the 3 danger men in midfield, but Melbourne will also come up against Ko Cha-won on the right side of midfield this time around. Cha-won is not as spectacular of a player as the 3 aforementioned players, but he has special technical abilities and his first touch is superb. If Suwon are able to feed Ko Cha-won quickly and when he is in space he can be devastating. He doesn't produce too much individual brilliance or score a lot of goals but he works well within a unit and is a very unselfish player. He will be one to watch. 

The Melbourne back line can also expect to lineup against Cho Dong-geon. However, they shouldn't fear him too much. He has been absolutely woeful so far this season. Suwon do not have a goalscoring striker, so the least that can be expected of any centre forward is to link play and bring Suwon's attacking midfield into the game. But this is something that Dong-geon is just incapable of doing because his first touch is atrocious. Actually, his 2nd, 3rd and 4th touches are just as bad. He started the season as our 2nd choice striker, but I would personally have him at number 4 on the list. If he is to start on Wednesday night then it could be a long evening for the Suwon midfield. 

The only saving grace in Suwon's striking unit is youngster Kim Gun-hee. He has shaken off an ankle injury and was on the bench for the game at the weekend. It is unlikely that he will start on Wednesday but I would imagine that the manager will use him at some point in the game. Gun-hee started the season exceptionally well and he was a very useful foil for Ki-hun and Chang-hoon. In the games that he has played, Suwon looked strong and controlled the first 2 ACL games with him leading the line. When he dropped out of the team they have looked anything but strong and too many times promising attacks are are stopped because of a lack of a decent striker. It is great news to have him back and he is vitally important to this Suwon team. 

(Possible Suwon line-up)

Lew Dub: Across all of the ACL groups K-League teams have acquitted themselves well, the only exception being Suwon. Does failure to advance from the Group Stage mean Seo Jung-won should be concerned about his job?

Scott Whitelock: Not at all. Seo Jung-won has his hands tied this season and barring an unlikely relegation I cannot see him losing his job. In truth, his squad has been significantly weakened over the last year due to budget cuts. Suwon now place a huge reliance on their academy system, which I must say, is one of the best in Korea, and Seo Jung-won's brief is to now improve the squad over a number of years. Every Suwon supporter is realistic in their expectations and understand the difficult job that the manager has. 
Predicted scoreline: Suwon Bluewings 3 - 2 Melbourne Victory 

Please head over to East Asian Soccer for all information on the leagues in Australia, China and Japan. And also, you can now find information regarding the Australian 2nd tier.

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