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Writer's Chat: Sanfrecce Hiroshima vs. FC Seoul AFC Preview

On Wednesday night, the final game for Group F in the AFC Champion's League (ACL) will be played.  With the group already decided, FC Seoul travel to Sanfrecce Hiroshima to play what is essentially a meaningless fixture for both teams.  Of course, the players who are chosen to wear the colors will feel differently and this could lead to a quite an open and exciting contest since there is always pride to play for.  K-League United's John Emanuelson and J.League Regista's Stuart discuss the surprising form of FC Seoul and the Sanfrecce Hiroshima's struggles.  

Stuart Asks, John Answers

Stuart: Domestically, FC Seoul are flying. How did they overcome an opening day defeat to hit this rich vein of form?

John: I feel as though the defeat to Jeonbuk was just a blip.  Seoul started out the season so well by thrashing Buriram United and Sanfrecce Hiroshima in their first two games.  That has created an excitement that has not been felt in the last two years and Seoul have gone on from there.  Every time Seoul play, there is always a sense of belief that they will win and games that would end in draws or last year have instead, been wins.  

I would say much of this would be down to Seoul's defensive work and a slight change in tactics.  For the year, Seoul opponents average 9.5 shots a game, but only 3.88 are on target.  Other K-League clubs average around the same amount of shots conceded more or less, but they have allowed more shots on goal.  I would say this is a big reason why Seoul have the best defense in the league and have only conceded 6 goals all year.  

Likewise, a change in tactics has worked as well.  Seoul press better this year and are much more aggressive looking for a goal when they have the ball.  In turn, they average less possession (51%) than in the past, but they shoot a lot more (14.25 shots per game/7.75 on target).  

Stuart: Have you been surprised at the ease of FC Seoul's passage through the group stage of this year's ACL? 

John: Yes, I have.  Last year, Seoul struggled mightily in the group and were quite lucky to get through.  They only scored five goals in six games and the team seemed generally devoid of any ideas when it came to attack.  If it was not for a bad Molina touch and the exhausted legs of the Kawasaki Frontale defenders, I do not think Seoul would have made it to the round of 16.  Therefore, factor in their struggles with the fact that the team traditionally struggle coming out of the gates, I was not expecting Seoul to dominate in the manner they have.  

Stuart: Where does the ACL rank in the list of Seoul's priorities this year?

John: I would say it is probably at the top of the list, maybe even slightly ahead of a K-League title.  It is the one accolade that the manager Choi and a lot of veteran Seoul players such as Dejan, Go Yo-han, and Kim Chi-woo do not have.  This is why I think it ranks at the top of their priorities, especially after losing via the away goals rule to Guangzhou Evergrande in 2013.  It may not be all consuming, but to get another chance to win the ACL must be quite a strong motivator.

Stuart: Adriano is rampaging through the Champions League like a man possessed having notched up nine goals so far. What makes him such a dangerous player? Is it solely his talent, or does he benefit from having talent around him? 

John:  What has made Adriano so dangerous is down to more than one factor.  Obviously, he has talent or else he would not be succeeding at this level, although he seems to be somewhat of a late bloomer.  Looking at his career via soccerway.com, until signing with Daejeon Citizens in 2014, he had only scored more than 10 goals in a season once.  Since moving to Korea, he has really taken off since then.  

He has pace, which is an important feature for a striker, but I think his greatest talent lies in his ability to get into great scoring positions.  Here are some GIFS of all the goals he had scored this year until last week's game.  

- Last year, here are his winning goals against JeonnamSeongnam, and Incheon in the FA Cup final.  - In the ACL, here are the four goals against Buriram (1st2nd3rd, and 4th), his hat trick against Sanfrecce Hiroshima (1st2nd, and 3rd), and the brace he scored against Shandong Luneng (1st and 2nd). 
-In the K-League this year, here is one that was stopped against Jeonbuk and called offside against Jeonnam, but  here are the goals he has scored in open play against SangjuIncheon, and Suwon FC.
- Finally, he is not known for his aerial prowess, but he is capable of scoring headers such as  the one here

None of the goals he has scored were outside of the box and I think all show his innate ability to sense where the ball will end up before the defender does.  Here is a great example from the Super Match last Saturday.  The ball over the top from Takahagi seems to be a bit of a lost cause, but Adriano does not give up and he takes it off Yang Sang-min and chips keeper No Dong-geon.  

However, it helps that the team has improved so much with the addition Dejan and the upgrade in the quality of Seoul's midfield.  When Dejan played for Seoul back in 2013, he was always the furthest upfield.  Now, he plays as a deep-lying forward, who does quite a bit of work pressing and helps create many of Seoul's chances.  Likewise, Ju Se-jong, Shin Jin-ho before he left, and Takahagi worked well together as a midfield trio.  Takahagi had his moments last year, but never looked fully comfortable.  With a full preseason under his belt, that is no longer the case.  In sum, Adriano has loads of talent but without adequate service, he would not be at the heights he is now.  

Stuart:  Did you imagine that Sanfrecce Hiroshima, reigning J.League champions no less, would have put up a sterner fight? 

John:  Absolutely, I thought that Sanfrecce Hiroshima would win the group and Seoul would finish in second.  Looking at them statistically last year, they were quite impressive in attack and on defense and featured the league's MVP and Rookie of the Year.  Even after Seoul eviscerated Buriram United, I still expected the Japanese champions to collect a point when they came to Seoul back in March.  So, I was pleasantly surprised that Seoul won that game 4-1 and it is from there that I have started to believe they might have a chance to do well this season.  

Stuart:  What do you think the result will be? 

John:  Since the group has already been decided and neither team have much to play for, I do not expect this to be a very compelling game.  I expect both teams to rotate their squads heavily, or at least I hope that Seoul does.  Their core has played a lot this season and they deserve a rest.  

That being said, I still expect the team that Seoul turn out will be very good.  Some of the players who have not featured this season, such as Yun Ju-tae and Kim Nam-chun, are sure to get a run out and I think they will want to do their best to impress the manager.  That is why I still think a Seoul side that is not at full strength will run out 2-1 winners.  

John Asks, Stuart Answers

John:  Sanfrecce Hiroshima seemed to have struggled coming out of the gate in the J1 League, but with four wins in their last five games, they look to be doing much better.  What have they done to fix their problems?  

Stuart: The results may have improved, but the performances haven't seen a drastic improvement. They will go into this game on the back of a loss against Jubilo Iwata, and fortunate wins against Yokohama F.Marinos & Albirex Niigata. The problems are an uncharacteristic lack of verve and they seriously miss the defence stretching capabilities of Takuma Asano. I ultimately expect them to come good, but they are not in a good place, form wise, right now.

John:  With their loss to Shandong Luneng two weeks ago, they have been eliminated from the ACL.  Is there shock and maybe even disappointment with how Sanfrecce Hiroshima have done or was this to be expected?

Stuart: I'd say a decent amount of both, but more disappointment. It wasn't too long ago that Sanfrecce finished as "third best team in the world" at the Club World Cup. They saw off Guangzhou Evergrande and gave River Plate a very good run for their money. Hopes were high, and even after a slow start it was thought they would come good. Alas, they haven't and they haven't shown what they are capable of.

They seem to be happy to be J.League champions, but don't really show a lot of emotion when it comes to the continental version. That is the thing that disappoints me the most. Hiroshima defenders say that their budget simply doesn't stretch to competing at a high level in both the J.League & ACL, and certainly they don't spend as much as the other teams at the top of the league. Their squad is pretty small, and as such can't really rotate as much as they would probably like to.

John:  Besides Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Gamba Osaka and FC Tokyo have struggled in the ACL as well.  Why have Japanese teams found the ACL so difficult this year?

Stuart:  I think Japanese teams, with the exception of Urawa Reds, have under-estimated the level of teams in Asia, and also under-estimated the toll that playing midweek and weekend would take on them. All of the teams that are struggling in the ACL didn't really add to the squad in a way that would satisfy the demands of a more grueling schedule. Hiroshima only added Peter Utaka of any note; FC Tokyo added Muriqui - but too late to be available for the group stage and Gamba added the underwhelming Ademilson and not much else.

I'm not sure what it is like in Korea, but the Japanese teams and supporters suffer from a bit of apathy towards to the competition. To a certain extent, midweek football isn't really a successful phenomena in Japan. That's more of a cultural thing, and not just related to ACL. Urawa seem to have grasped the premise that this competition gives you continental kudos, and as they want to be the "biggest" team in Japan they added to their already big squad in preparation for a run in this competition.

John:  Last year, Sanfrecce Hiroshima had the league MVP (Toshihiro Aoyama) and Rookie of the Year (Takuma Asano). How have they fared this year so far?  Also, new signing Peter Utaka seems to be doing really well.  Has that been a surprise?

Stuart:  Aoyama hasn't really hit the heights that he hit last year, but those were very lofty heights indeed. He isn't influencing games as much as he did last year, but anything good that Hiroshima do, usually comes from him or through him. His best, and Hiroshima's best, game this year was when they hammered Omiya Ardija 5-1 away from home. He was supreme in that match, running the game to his tune and helping himself to a goal and a couple of assists. Unfortunately, those performances - which occurred almost on a weekly basis in his peerless 2015 - have been few & far between this year.

Asano is the new shining hope of Japanese football as his performances in the last year - culminating in his performance against Korea in the U23 Asian Championship - have previewed the kind of striker that Japan has been crying out for. Fast, strong and clinical, "the Jaguar" is prototypical for Japan and has already attracted interest from Europe - Serie A side Udinese are apparently the front runners for his signature.  He benefits from an almost telepathic understanding with Aoyama, and from the excellent service from the likes of Mikic and Kashiwa down the sides. Unfortunately Asano has been out injured for the past month, and has only just returned to full training meaning I can't really see him playing against Seoul. It is a shame as when he is fit and on his game there isn't a more exciting Japanese forward.

Peter Utaka is ripping it up for Hiroshima this year. Ostensibly replacing Brazilian hot-shot Douglas who left for warmer (& richer) climes in the middle east, Utaka has arrived on loan from Shimizu S-Pulse and has immediately taken to Sanfrecce's style. He has pace & power, and manages to find his way into good positions in and around the box. Perhaps playing in a bad team last year hampered his style (S-Pulse were relegated from J1 last year) but his rich vein of form has been a pleasant surprise for fans of the champions.

John:  Where do you expect Sanfrecce Hiroshima to finish this year?  Also, if you do not choose them as the champions, then who will win the league title?  

Stuart:  I think they'll finish top 5 overall, with the real possibility of winning the J1 League second stage. The way the J.League is set up now is over two stages. The winners of each stage progress to the championship stage, along with the team with the most points through the whole season, and up to two other teams. It is a convoluted system that even after a year I'm still not really sure how it actually works.

Having said that, if Hiroshima qualify for the J.League championship stage, and they would be very dangerous there.  If not Hiroshima, I expect either Urawa Reds or Kashima Antlers to take the crown.

John:   Since the group has been decided, neither team has a lot to play for other than pride.  Do you expect Sanfrecce Hiroshima to rest their starters or field a strong squad?

Stuart:  I think Sanfrecce will rest starters and I think they'll play a much-weakened team, which will be unfortunate because it won't make for a very good game.

John:  What do you think the result will be? 

Stuart:  I think FC Seoul will run out winners in this game. If they bring their A-game, I see the visitors winning by two goals.

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