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Writer's Chat: FC Seoul vs. Urawa Reds AFC Preview

This Wednesday night FC Seoul host the Urawa Reds in the second leg of their AFC Champions League round of 16 fixture.  Urawa Reds came away 1-0 victors last week, but by no means is the contest over.  K-League United's John Emanuelson and J-League Regista's Stuart discuss the likelihood of Seoul breaching Urawa's impenetrable defense and which team will walk away euphoric in victory.  

John Asks, Stuart Answers

John: The Urawa Reds currently sit in third place in the J1 League, two points behind league leader Kawasaki Frontale.  According to Wikipedia, the last time they won the league was in 2006.  How would you rate their season right now and their chances of winning the league? 

Stuart: I think they are the most complete team in Japan right now. They are the "biggest" team in the country, but recently that has weighed them down somewhat as they have struggled to deal with the pressure, with the expectation that comes with their status. They've had some excruciating end of season collapses in the recent past but they are always amongst the favourites, and they won the J.League first stage last season, before losing at home in the Championship semi-final. 

As for this year, I pegged them as second favourites before the season began, but they are doing well as of now. I expect them to win a stage, and I also expect them to head to the J.League Championship final. Can they win it all? Yes, they can. Will they? I'm not there quite yet....

John: Are the Urawa Reds the best team in the league or is it just a reflection of how Sanfrecce Hiroshma and Gamba Osaka have struggled this year?

Stuart: They're the best overall team. Whilst I don't think they have the most attacking flair, they have enough options to keep opponents on their toes and they have players like Yuki Muto & Shinzo Koroki who can add moments of class to games. In some ways it is a reflection on the others, as the two teams you mentioned haven't really built on their recent dominance (Sanfrecce lost top scorer Douglas last winter, while Gamba didn't really do anything spectacular in the transfer window) while Urawa pinpointed the player they wanted in Wataru Endo, and got him with the minimum of fuss. I expect those two teams to get better as the year progresses, but for the moment, they sit well behind where Urawa Reds are.

John:  Urawa Reds drew in their last game against Pohang Steelers at home in the ACL.  How much of a surprise was it for them not to win?  

Stuart:  I think the game against Pohang really focused Urawa's minds. Whilst the Steelers didn't really come out all guns blazing, it was a good scouting mission for Urawa coach Petrovic as he probably saw how his team needed to set up against Korean teams. I was disappointed Urawa didn't beat Pohang, but not surprised. This year, Korean sides have had the upper hand in J.League vs K.League battles. 

In the first leg of this tie, Urawa did their best to suffocate service to the red-hot Adriano, and they did it successfully for the most part (with the exception of one chance near the end). Of course, I expect Seoul to come and pressure Urawa from the off next week, and Reds can't really afford to give Adriano too many chances like the one he missed last week, because he won't waste chances like that again very often, but I also expect Urawa to be resolute. 

John:  Having only conceded six goals, I think it is evident that Urawa are quite a solid defensive team?  Why are they so strong in this area?

Stuart:  Urawa are strong because they've used their resources very wisely in defensive areas, but you could say they need to thank Sanfrecce Hiroshima a bit. Goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa and defenders Tomoaki Makino and Ryota Moriwaki all passed through Hiroshima on their way to Urawa. This season, the addition of Wataru Endo, once a silky smooth ball playing holding midfielder at Shonan Bellmare, has added an extra dimension to Urawa's central defence and he's the brains to Moriwaki & Makino's brawn. The goalkeeper & three centre backs have developed a great understanding, and they also get good screening from veteran midfielder Yuki Abe. All this adds up to a pretty solid defence, as Seoul found out in the first leg. 

John:  How would you rate Urawa Red's attack?  Their leading scorer is Shinzo Koroki.  Can you give a description of his attributes?

Stuart:  Shinzo Koroki is one of my favourite players to watch. He looks very unassuming, and often plays at what looks like a languid pace, but he is capable of leading the line AND operating as a "false 9" in the area between the central defenders & midfield. Koroki is the defacto leader, and is quite prolific for J.League standards having scored double digit goals in each of the last five years. 

It isn't a one man show though. Koroki is ably supported by Tadanari Lee, crowned as the most recent J.League monthly MVP, and Yuki Muto. It is easy for people to forget that last year was Muto's first at Urawa as he started his Reds career in brilliant fashion scoring 13 goals and playing himself into Japan national team conversations. He usually plays off the front man and is a superb bridge between midfield and attack. These three - Koroki, Lee & Muto - are a matchup nightmare for oppositions as their fluidity is difficult to keep track of all game. 

These players wouldn't be half the players they are without good service though, and that is where diminutive playmaker Yosuke Kashiwagi comes to the fore. Whether it is from set pieces, around the box or when he sits deep in the "regista" role, his accuracy and speed of pass cause havoc for defences. When he gets the ball facing the opposition goal, he has lots of options - the front three mentioned previously, Ugajin (goalscorer from the first leg) on the left & Takahiro Sekine on the right. With all these options, it is difficult for the opposition to shut them all off, and Kashiwagi is adept at picking out the weak point and has the skill put passes/crosses where they need to be.

John:  How do you think this game will turn out, and what will the score be?

Stuart:  I think this is going to be an epic tussle. I think Seoul are in a tough spot. They have to score - which admittedly they've had no problem doing in the majority of this competition - but they know that just one goal for Urawa can land them in a world of trouble. The Urawa defence can be stiflingly tight when they're at their imposing best, in the J.League they kept free scoring Kawasaki Frontale scoreless away from home, and I expect them to line up pretty much as they always do - solid. FC Seoul will have to throw everything at them, and I think it will make for a great spectacle. I think Reds could bend, but I don't think they'll break. I'm going to stick my neck out and say FC Seoul to win 2-1 on the night, but Urawa to progress on away goals. 

(A metaphor for Seoul's game last Wednesday?  Tamoaki Makino takes out Adriano, from FCSeoul.com)
Stuart Asks, John Answers

Stuart:  The tie is poised finely with Urawa holding a 1-0 advantage. How do you feel FC Seoul played in the first leg?

John:  Seoul had their moments in the game, two great ones to be precise, but were also quite fortunate to come away only losing 1-0.  I missed the first half because I had to work, but I did watch the second half, and I felt at times that Seoul were on the verge of committing suicide.  Even though Tomaya Ugajin's goal was lucky as hell, I think Urawa probably deserved something from the game.  Seoul had more shots, but Urawa had the better chances and if not for Seoul's keeper Yu Sang-hun, the tie might effectively be over.

Urawa were very good defensively and controlled the game for long periods, but Seoul had some great chances and I feel as though a 1-1 scoreline would not have been unreasonable at all.  I think both teams will walk away from this game fancying their chances.

Stuart:  Up until that point, Korean teams had really had the better of their Japanese counterparts in this year's competition. Were you surprised how Urawa were able to neutralize a potent FC Seoul side?

John:  I was not particularly surprised since Urawa have been quite strong in the AFC Champions League this year, only conceding four goals.  Of those four goals, three were from the penalty spot, so I knew that the team was solid at the back and scoring against them would be a mighty task.  I expected this game to be a low scoring affair with neither team taking too many risks.  

What did surprise me was how easily Urawa shredded Seoul's defense at times.  Part of this I think is the decision of Choi Yong-soo to push Osmar from his favored CB spot on the left into the midfield to play as a destroyer.  In the K-League, it works quite well, but Kim Nam-chun is not Osmar and I felt like Seoul were weaker for it all night. That being said, I think Seoul are stronger in the midfield when Osmar plays there and he was directly responsible for a glorious chance at the end of the first half that Adriano should have buried.  

Stuart:  It is only a 1-0 for Urawa, so what changes (if any) do you think Seoul need to make in order to overturn the first leg score?

John:  This year, Choi Yong-soo has pretty much gone with the same side throughout most of the fixtures.  The only change that might happen is that maybe Osmar will start as the left sided CB and Park Yong-woo will come in to play as the DM.  I think what is more important for the team than changing the lineup is rest. 

Seoul have played 7 to 8 games a month and I think it is catching up to the players.  I am really hoping that a week off will help Dejan's fitness.  He started out brilliant as the deep-lying forward, but Choi has been subbing him off at half-time as of late and bringing on Park Chu-young.  To overcome this deficit, I think Seoul are going to need Dejan at his best to control the flow of the game and create chances for Adriano.  

A lot of Seoul's offense consisted of pumping high balls forward and praying that Adriano could get on the end of them.  That did not work and I think that Seoul will need some sort of inventive play to unlock the Urawa defense and the one player capable of that is Dejan.  If he has a good game, then I think Seoul will get the two goals and move on to the quarter finals.  

Stuart:  On the flip side, Urawa need only one goal to make it very difficult for their hosts. How do you think Seoul will balance the need for goals with the need to keep it tight at the back?

John: I think that Seoul will apply the same sort of suicidal defending that was on display in Japan.  The team will push forward looking for an equalizer, but pray to God, Allah, Vishnu, Buddah, Odin, Zeus, Jebus, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever deity is available to hear their pleas that Urawa do not somehow find a way to score.  If Osmar plays in the left CB spot, expect him to push up frequently to support the attack.  Likewise, the same will be true for whomever mans the right CB spot of Seoul's three man defense.

I hope that Choi is aggressive this game, switches from a back three to a back four, and introduces another forward.  Seoul cannot afford to be too cautious and have to come out guns blazing from the moment the whistle blows.  Outside of a few brief moments, Seoul struggled to break down Urawa's defense, but when Choi introduced Sim Woo-yeon as a battering ram their best chance was produced that, unfortunately, Adriano hit point blank at Shusaku Nishikawa (good save though).  

Stuart:  How do you think this game will turn out, and what will the score be?

John:  It will be a tight game with a lot of tough tackling.  I wouldn't be surprised if there are four or five yellow cards as the players will be keyed up.  Urawa's defense is quite formidable, but I think Seoul will get a goal to tie it up. From there, the game goes into extra time and some how Seoul find a way to score a second goal and move on to the next round. 

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