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AFC Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Jiangsu Suning

K-League's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors take on Chinese Super League's Jiangsu Suning where whoever is defeated is most likely out of this year's AFC Champions League competition.
K-League's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors take on Chinese Super League's Jiangsu Suning where whoever is defeated is most likely out of this year's AFC Champions League competition.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Jiangsu Suning go into their first, and potentially last, season-defining game this Wednesday, both knowing that the only result that would suit both parties is out of their hands, a defeat for FC Tokyo in Vietnam. Instead, both teams will require results (Jeonbuk need a draw, Jiangsu need to win) from this fixture to guarantee their participation in the knockout rounds.

Group E was always going to be difficult, but it should have been easier for Choi Kang-hee's men. A controversial selection in Vietnam however, culminating in a disastrous performance and result, ensured that their pre-season aspirations of lifting the Champions League trophy would hinge on a game they would have hoped would have been meaningless by this stage.

Their previous game in the tournament, a comprehensive 3-0 victory away in Tokyo, finally saw the K-League champions come to play, no doubt sending a warning shot ahead of this fixture that this team can turn it on when they want to. It is just a pity it has taken this long to see that level of performance.

Fortunately for Jeonbuk, Jiangsu Suning have also proved to be underwhelming and inconsistent throughout this tournament. Spending in excess of €60 million on high profile marquee signings such as Ramires and Teixeira, the Nanjing side have been held to draws by both Becamex Binh Duong and FC Tokyo, before also being defeated in the fourth round of games to Tokyo on Chinese soil.

With both teams having spent big with a view to winning this competition, the fact that one of these competition favourites will most likely bow out only goes to show money cannot guarantee success. While Choi Kang-hee's position may be untouchable at Jeonbuk, his reputation after spending so much, only to fall at the first hurdle, will most likely be tarnished. Hopefully, for the sake of the K-League in this tournament, he has a strong line-up in mind. It is not like he has been wrong in his squad selections before...

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Jeonbuk's resounding success against FC Tokyo came after the manager effectively tested his preferred eleven in the league game before against title-contenders Seongnam, making only two changes to the starting line-up, his lowest of the season.

With this in mind, Jeonbuk also fielded a relatively strong line-up in this weekend's 3-1 demolishing of play-off winners Suwon FC, with a midfield and attack similar in selection to that of both the Seongnam and Tokyo games. Therefore, it is likely Choi Kang-hee will most likely play Jang Yun-ho and Kim Bo-kyung in central midfield, Lee Jae-sung in the AM position and Lee Dong-gook playing the lone striker role. Wingers are a bit more difficult to select, with Han Kyo-won recently forcing himself into contention with some very good performances and goals. I do not think the manager will be bold enough to start him however, and will most likely opt of Leonardo and Lopes down the left and right wings respectively.

Against Suwon FC, the manager opted to experiment with some younger defenders alongside two regulars; Lim Jong-eun and Choi Chul-soon. Having recently favoured the young Choi Kyu-baek in central defence, I can envisage his return alongside Kim Chang-soo who should be available for selection having served his suspension which he earned against Binh Duong.

Probable Starting Eleven for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (Image generated using the Line-up 11 app)
In terms of recent form, Jeonbuk sit 2nd in the K-League and are unbeaten. They have only dropped two points at home in all competitions despite only finding victory on the road once (against FC Tokyo). What admittedly looks impressive on paper does mask their very inconsistent performances, but they have managed to present decent performances when favoured to struggle such as against FC Seoul (won 1-0), Seongnam (won 3-2) and away at FC Tokyo (won 3-0). Despite my personal frustrations with their displays against "less favoured" sides, the K-League champions do seem to have a knack this year of holding their nerve when the pressure is on. Hopefully this will ring true for Lee Dong-gook and co this Wednesday.

Jiangsu Suning

Despite a few disappointments in the AFC Champions League, Jiangsu have been flying on the domestic front, also finding themselves second and unbeaten in the league, trailing only a point behind last year’s ACL winners Guangzhou Evergrande and only drawing twice. It is therefore been quite disappointing to see them struggle in Asia to the degree they have done, having originally been favourites to top the group.

They also seem to be lacking a player to take on the goal scoring mantle, having had seven different goalscorers across their seven games played. Domestically, defender Ren Hang leads the Jiangsu charts with three goals, currently sitting 9th on the CSL top scorer list. Their defence have been making up for the lack of goals scored however (although they are still 3rd in the league for this figure) by only conceding three all season. They are very difficult to break down with threats all over the pitch.

In this tournament however, it is the Brazilian striker Jo who leads the way, having put away three so far in the competition. Having already scored one against Jeonbuk in the reverse of this fixture, you would hope Motors will have learned their lesson.

Previous Meeting

Jeonbuk eventually went down fighting in Jiangsu, but the damage had already been done.
(Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)
The previous meeting between these two at the start of March saw Choi Kang-hee in full experimental mode, benching his strongest line-up despite having had a week prior to the match and ten days until their season opener for the team to rest.

Unfortunately for Jeonbuk supporters, the unpredictable line-up led to what are now becoming predictable results as they found themselves 3-1 behind before the introduction of Erik Paartalu and Lee Dong-gook saw them claw back a goal and notably improve, but it was too late for them to salvage a point.

On that occasion, defensive errors led to Jiangsu taking the lead, and then the K-League champions were taken apart by effective counter attacks as they tried to fight back. With two months having passed, it is hoped that Jeonbuk's defence are now more familiar with one another to not be so naive.

The game also saw an injury to Kim Bo-kyung, a player who's return has coincided with Jeonbuk's recent upturn in performance quality. His movement and creativity, linking up well with Premier League-linked midfielder Lee Jae-sung has seen the attacking potential of this Jeonbuk side slowly come to the fore. Choi Kang-hee will be hoping for another strong performance from the ex-Cardiff man.

Read the full recap from that match here.

Prediction

This game looks incredibly difficult to predict. Both teams have the players to be performing better in this competition. With big names such as Gamba Osaka and current champions Guangzhou Evergrande already dropping out of the tournament, this presents a real opportunity for both Jiangsu and Jeonbuk to have a decent run.

As mentioned, Jeonbuk have been formidable at home, even if the performance has not always matched the scoreline. Having this fixture in Jeonju will definitely be of advantage to them. The home side’s attacking players are also finding their feet and are beginning to show glimpses of their quality at just the right time. This could really be a watershed moment for this 2016 team; overcoming this tricky hurdle could potentially help them kick-on on all fronts.

Jiangsu lack the firepower that Jeonbuk have, although there are goals to be found elsewhere in the squad. With the uncertainty that has sometimes dogged the Jeonbuk defence, you would expect Jiangsu to find a way through somehow.

Overall though, I see Jeonbuk being the team to progress to the knockout phases of this competition. They have much more experience in this tournament and have the leaders on the pitch (see Lee Dong-gook) who can inspire them but also drag them through if need be. A draw will see Jeonbuk progress, but I predict them to narrowly edge it.

Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 Jiangsu Suning

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