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Writers Chat: FC Seoul vs Shandong Luneng ACL Preview

 In a rematch of Group F opponents from the Group Stage, K-League's FC Seoul welcomes Chinese Super League's new look and star studded Shandong Luneng to Seoul World Cup Stadium this Wednesday. To get a glimpse into the struggling CSL side, FC Insider's Hans Dekker stops by to chat about Shandong's big names, their league struggles, and what FC Seoul fans can expect come Wednesday.

Ryan Asks, Hans Answers

Ryan Walters: It’d be impossible to talk about Shandong Luneng without bringing up the big money summer signings of Graziano Pellè and Papiss Cissé. How have the two former Primer League strikers settled in to their new club?

Hans Dekker: We fully understand this is being brought up as their arrival did not go unnoticed around the world. Graziano Pellè has already settled in very well and is actually one of the more important players for Luneng right now. With 3 goals and 1 assist in 6 CSL games he is one of the reasons the team can start looking up now. He is very important in the playing style deployed by Felix Magath and overall he seems happy in China. Papiss Cissé is a bit of a different story. According to Magath he joined Luneng with a lack of fitness, and we know how Magath can be. The player himself has been quoted at press conferences saying he feels very good and strong, and feels like he is able to contribute to the team. He has been coming off the bench in pretty much every game so far, but last weekend he finally made his starting debut. He did very well but unfortunately for him a bit too late. Because of the foreign player policy in the ACL Luneng decided not to register Cissé for the ACL, so you won't be seeing him in Seoul.

RW: Even though Shandong’s a mere 3 points from relegation in the league table, there’s been a bit of a turnaround of late having won 5 out of 8. What’s been the difference for them and can they keep that momentum heading into ACL?

HD: Of course there have been quite a few changes at Luneng this year. The biggest one would be the arrival of new coach Felix Magath and the signing of the aforementioned strikers. But if you would ask us what changed the most, it's their luck. We have been looking at some of the statistics behind their play and they were not doing too bad, despite their lack in points. For example: Shanghai SIPG were ranked 3rd as Luneng sat in 14th, but their possession per game, shots per game, and shots on target per game numbers were virtually equal. Felix Magath is known for his disciplined approach to the game and he certainly has made his impact at the club. The team has been training twice a day and this is not easy if you look at the busy schedule CSL teams have. The German coach has also been trying out some new things both with players and formations and now seems to have found the missing link. The team has certainly gotten the confidence boost they needed heading in to the next stage of the ACL and they probably feel this is their last chance to give their season some color.

RW: Shandong and Seoul are no strangers to each other having already played twice during the Group Stage where Seoul recorded a comprehensive 4-1 win in China and held a scoreless draw in Korea. However, while Seoul’s largely remained the same, Shandong has a dramatically different look. Along with the new high profile faces, what other differences can Seoul fans expect to see from the team led by former Bayern Munich coach Felix Magath? Any new formations and/or tactics?

HD: That would have to be a very convincing yes. You can expect a totally new Shandong with changes all over the pitch. But even to the regular followers of Shandong it remains a surprise as to how they will start against FC Seoul. In their last CSL fixture against Tianjin Teda (1-4 win) they started in a 4-4-2 formation with both Pellè and Cissé up front. This worked out very well for them deploying the long ball to Pellè with Cissé working around him using his pace and looking for the loose balls. But since Cissé won't be able to play in the ACL it remains to be seen if Magath will opt for Walter Montillo in the same role. In addition to this Magath has been trying out players in different positions and has done so with great success. The best example would have to be Dai Lin, as the former defender can now be found in the central midfielder position. He never looked confident in defense but now that he's no longer deployed in the last line of defense he has found himself again. Expect to not only see him apply pressure all over the pitch but also try and get in some shots from distance. And there are more players who are used in a completely different role under the former Bayern coach. So we feel confident in saying that the Luneng who got dealt a 4-1 defeat at home earlier this ACL and the Luneng we know now are two different teams.

RW: The aforementioned 4-1 win for Seoul at Shandong was Adriano’s coming out party for most Asian football fans. While he’s cooled a bit of late, Dejan Damjanović has caught fire and filled the gap. How will Shandong attempt to stop these offensive juggernauts?

HD: As you can take away from our last answer some things have been changed in the defensive areas of Luneng. In their last few CSL matches we could clearly see new tactics being deployed in for example defending set pieces. Magath and his team are now basically on one line, looking for the off-side trap in most situations. From the starting 11 in this ACL match only 6 started in Luneng's last CSL fixture, and 2 of those 6 are in a different position. The defense has changed in 3 places and they look far more stable in the back now. With Jucilei and Gil forming a central duo, Dai Lin as a ball winner in front of the defense, and with Magath applying his discipline in all areas, FC Seoul will have their work cut out for them.

RW: Score Prediction?

HD: Fully hoping to see Shandong Luneng get the important away goal: 1-1

Hans Asks, Ryan Answers

Hans Dekker: Chinese footy followers know of course FC Seoul lost their manager Choi Yong-soo earlier this season to Jiangsu Suning. How has the team been doing since his departure, can we expect a stronger Seoul?

Ryan Walters: There are always growing pains under new leadership, but Hwang Sun-hong had it especially rough taking over from Choi midseason with a team still fighting in three competitions. The K-League season was a bit of a rollercoaster before his arrival, so it's fitting that Hwang's reign has fit into that narrative. During his first six matches the team won 1, drew 1, and lost 4, and essentially watched their title chances slip away. They were only outscored 12 to 8 during the stretch, and weren't getting blown out of the water, but it allowed the still undefeated Jeonbuk to increase their lead at the top of the table to near insurmountable levels (once as high as 14 points, now "down" to 10). However, since then the team has won five in a row, outscored their opponents 11 to 3 during the stretch, and look to be finding their form under the new manager. Even with Adriano serving a six game suspension for a flagrant foul, the offense has continued to click largely behind Dejan Damjanović's potential Golden Boot winning performance. And though it's still a touch shaky at times, the defense has been getting the results on paper. One of the biggest changes Hwang brought in was a switch to a four man backline anchored by Kim Chi-woo, Osmar, and newly returned South Korean national teamer Kwak Tae-hwi. Since making the formation shift the team's gone 5-1 and held 2 clean sheets. Again, they've been a bit lucky to do so, but it's hard to argue the defense isn't stronger now than it was a month ago, and is in better shape than the last time they played Luneng.

HD: We all know the season Shandong Luneng has been having so far. Adding to this the 4-1 defeat to Seoul earlier this campaign, do you think there could be a chance Seoul could be underestimating the CSL side?

RW: There's always the chance, but I think Seoul will definitely have their heads in this one. While they're still technically fighting for three different trophies this year, the K-League title is all but wrapped up at this point (barring a significant point deduction for Jeonbuk's bribery scandal), and while back to back FA Cup titles would be nice, it doesn't offer nearly as much prestige as Champions League. It would be another trophy to add to the case, sure, but it doesn't come with an invite to the FIFA Club World Cup. Additionally, they've read Shandong's headlines as much as anyone else and know the firepower they're about to be up against. Add all of that in with the fact that Seoul knows they'll need a sizable lead to take with them to China for the second leg and I think they'll be well up for this one. More simply, if they want this season to be an unmitigated success, continuing to win in ACL is their best shot and they know it.

HD: Where do you think FC Seoul has the biggest edge? You mentioned the recent form of the striking duo, who else do we need to look out for?

RW: As already mentioned here and by Dan Pordes in the official the-afc.com Key Players piece for this match, Adriano is certainly the man Luneng need to keep an eye on. Yes he's cooled a bit in league play, but the dude's scored 11 goals in ACL and he's not even done yet. If he weren't enough, former Beijing Guoan man Dejan has scored 7 goals in 7 games heading into the match and loves playing at home. It's tough to say Seoul have the offensive edge when Graziano Pellè's on the other side, but I'd definitely have to give Seoul the edge offensively. As for who else to watch for... it's not as sexy of a pick, but defenseman Kwak Tae-hwi may well be the difference maker in this matchup. Obviously Seoul hasn't had issues scoring this season, but their defense was what could've let them down in this competition and signing the 35-year-old vet from Al-Hilal was a "win now" kind of move with ACL in mind. Used to playing on the international stage with the Korean National Team, he won't be intimidated by Pellè or anyone else running at him and it's the kind of presence Seoul didn't have before now in this tournament.

HD: It is obvious Graziano Pellè is a great addition to Luneng. Most of the teams attacks revolve around the strong Italian and he is a great areal threat. How does the Seoul defense plan on answering that?

RW: Two ways: the best defense being a good offense, and the four man backline. If Seoul's going to come away victorious in this one, it's going to be from having more firepower than their Chinese counterparts. They'll lean heavily on Adriano and Dejan, but Park Chu-young is also having a good season and may be able to find some joy with Luneng looking to the foreign strikers so much. Defensively, they're still working out the kinks, but the results don't lie. A four man backline has pushed Seoul back into the K-League title conversation and should have them feeling confident heading into this matchup. For some additional protection, they may put midfielder Ko Kwang-min directly in front of the backline playing an almost exclusively defensive role. He's been dispatched as a center back a few times recently and would do a solid job providing extra protection and defensive aptitude.

HD: And of course: score prediction?

RW: After all of that talk of defense, I'm not entirely sure they'll keep a clean sheet. Luneng has a lot for them to handle and they don't quite seem settled enough to keep the likes of Pellè off the scoresheet for the full 90. However, I think the team will get the job done and pick up the win at home.

FC Seoul 2-1 Shandong Luneng

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