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ACL Preview: Suwon Bluewings vs Shanghai SIPG

(Photo courtesy of http://www.kgnews.co.kr)

Tuesday night brings yet more Champions League football to Big Bird stadium and it doesn't get much bigger than this game for Suwon. Thanks to the strange rules of the Asian version of the competition (more of that to come later) Suwon are left in the precarious position of having to better Melbourne's victory against the already eliminated Gamba Osaka. Meaning that even if Suwon win they will still be relying on the Japanese team to do them a favour and either hold Melbourne to a draw or get an unlikely victory on their travels to Australia. 

It's a situation that Suwon shouldn't be in and I think that most neutral supporters would agree that Suwon have contributed more to the tournament than their Australian rivals and would go on to contribute more if they do reach the knockout stages. If it were not for an inspired goalkeeping performance from Lawrence Thomas in the game played at Big Bird then Suwon would now be sitting nicely in second place knowing that a single point would secure their fate. However, chance after chance was spurned that night and as such Suwon find themselves hoping for a minor miracle. 

Shanghai SIPG

Shanghai's season got off to a rather unexpectedly dissapointing start. As one of the pre-tournament favourites for the ACL and one of the favourites to win the Chinese Super League, obviously, a lot was expected from their expensively assembled squad. However, huge questions were being asked of them after a disappointing total of 2 wins, 2 losses and one draw from their first 5 games of the season. Since then though, it's been plain sailing for Shanghai with 7 wins from 8 games, and with 19 goals scored in those 8 games they are looking like they will live up to those favourites tags. 

Shanghai's squad has a lot of danger men, but undoubtedly, the key players are Elkeson, Asamoah Gyan, Dario Conca and Wu Lei. 

On paper, the biggest threat in their squad is Asamoah Gyan, a man who is reportedly being paid $250,000 a week to turn out for Shanghai SIPG. Gyan has scored over 150 league career goals so far, and has also scored 48 goals for Ghana and holds the record for most goals scored in World Cup Finals by an African player. . I am very familiar with the Ghanaian having followed him closely during his time in the North East of England playing for Sunderland. During his brief stint in the English Premier League he put in some impressive performances and became Sunderland's most important player and a fans favourite. He is a strong centre forward who likes to get in behind defences and cause problems, rather than come out of his position to look for the ball. He has a terrific first touch and he is a handful for any defence. His decision to move to Al Ain in 2011 was a strange one as he had really become a standout player in the English Premier League and the feeling was that he could eventually go on to play for one of the biggest teams in Europe, but the lure of $250,000 a week must have been too much.Gyan missed the first game between the two teams but if he is to get a run out on this occasion then the Suwon defence will need to watch him very closely. 

Gyan's strike partner, Elkeson is also an exceptional talent and has taken Asia by storm since moving from his native Brazil in 2013. He took no time settling in and in his first full season bagged 24 goals and 10 assists in 28 games. That season Guangzhou Evergrande (Elkeson's club at the time) went on to lift the ACL and Elkeson was named in the tournament's dream team. The next season was also an unqualified success for the striker as he went on to score 28 goals in 28 games in 2014. 2015 brought a big money transfer and he moved to Shanghai SIPG for 18.5 Million Euros. Elkeson is a quick and skillful striker who can be devastating when he has the ball at his feet and is allowed to run at centre backs. Whoever is playing the holding midfield role for Suwon will have to have a strong game and be alert in the times when Elkeson peels away from the centre backs. Suwon will be reliant on him to get near the striker and stop him from having an easy run at the defence.
In midfield Shanghai boasts the threat of current Chinese national player Wu Lei. Wu Lei is the key player in Shanghai's midfield and is someone who could pose a significant threat to the Suwon goal. The midfielder is well known for his attacking capabilities and plays the majority of his game in the opposition's half. He is able to make penetrating runs ahead of the strikers and can score goals using both feet. Also, his blistering pace makes him almost impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation and Suwon will need to double up on him when he has the ball. It will be a difficult task for Suwon to keep the ball away from this promising, young player.

Finally, the player who makes it all tick is Dario Conca. The small and stocky midfielder has superb close control and has great variation in his passing game. He will regularly drop deep and try to link defence and attack together. He is one of the key weapons for Shanghai and Suwon will have to be quick to close him down when he has the ball because he can be devastating if he is given time and space to pick his passes.

With Shanghai already qualified, there is hope that Sven Goran Eirkson will play a weakened team on tuesday night. But even if he doesn't play his best 11 Suwon will still need to play extremely well to get the 3 points they desperately need as Shanghai are have strength in depth and quality in abundance.

Suwon Bluewings

Let me start this by saying that the Asian Champions League is insane, and the Group G table is my casing point:

Now ask yourself, in what dimension could that table be correct? Suwon and Melbourne are level on points and with an exact same record. The only thing that separates them is Suwon's superior goal difference. Yet, somehow Suwon are below Melbourne in the table. I know what you're thinking, Someone at the AFC has been smoking some particularly strong recreational drugs and have just made an error. But no, inexplicably, the AFC decided that prevalence should be given to the number of away goals scored in head-to-head matches as a tie-breaker, rather than the more traditional goal difference. I can't think of any other competition in world football that does this. And it also begs the question, why on earth is goal difference included in this graphic as it will very rarely be used to decide anything? Anyhow, that's enough of the AFC and their cheating ways, now on to Suwon.

As i've mentioned recently, Suwon are currently playing some fantastic attacking football, but whilst they have looked good going forward they have sometimes looked a little less than convincing at the back. However, Saturday's game against FC Seoul saw a reverse of this, as they defended valiantly whilst looking a little jaded going forward. While Saturday saw a good performance, in truth, not enough of Suwon's star players turned up. Yeom Ki-hun, often so reliable, was very quiet and ineffective and as much as Kwon Chang-hoon tried to make something happen, he just couldn't. Kim Gun-hee also suffered and he couldn't really contribute anything positive to the game. The back 4, however, were superb and special praise must go to Yang Sang-min who probably produced his best performance of the last 2 seasons. It was great to see the defence in such fantastic form and they were able to contain the K League's best attacking force to just a handful of half chances.

If Suwon are going to progress in this tournament then they will require more of the same from the back 4 again on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, Lee Jung-soo will drop out of the team as he isn't registered for the ACL. The experienced centre back has put in some sterling defensive performances in recent weeks and looks like he is going to be a real asset in the coming months for Suwon. But every cloud has a silver lining and the absence of Jung-soo will allow Kwak Hee-ju to come back into the team. The strong centre back made his 300th appearance for Suwon on Saturday and he could be the man to go one-one-one with Asamoah Gyan if the Ghanaian plays.

Other than that, I don't think Seo Jung-won will change much else from the starting 11 that went up against FC Seoul. Perhaps Lee Sang-ho will drop out because he didn't play particularly well on the right hand side of midfield. But Suwon will need their best 11 fit and raring to go and will need to attack with more verve than they did last Saturday.

It could be a tough night for Suwon but they won't go down without a fight, that's for certain. Let's hope that the same can be said for Gamba Osaka.

Prediction: Suwon Bluewings 2 - 1 Shanghai SIPG

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