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Writers Chat: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs FC Seoul AFC Preview

In what can safely be billed as the biggest fixture in Korean football this year, reigning K-League champions and currently first-placed Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will host their title contenders FC Seoul in the first leg of the AFC Champions League semi-final. K-League United columnists Ryan Walters and Matthew Binns (myself) sit down to discuss what we can expect when these Korean behemoths take up their rivalry on Asia's biggest stage.

Matthew asks, Ryan answers

Matthew Binns: Seoul have been somewhat underwhelming since their humbling 3-1 defeat to Jeonbuk on home turf, clocking up one narrow victory, multiple draws and a shock loss to Incheon. What's being going wrong for Hwang's men recently?

Ryan Walters: They can't find the back of the net. In the four league matches since that title-hope-crushing loss, Seoul has managed just three goals and was shut out twice. Dejan and Adriano are both still in the Golden Boot race, but have been coming up empty lately. Granted, Dejan had an absolute worldy of an assist in the Quarterfinals vs Shandong Luneng, but he hasn't been able to find the same magic in league play having gone scoreless through five matches. If if weren't for Yun Ju-tae's late game heroics vs Luneng (83rd minute goal) to salvage a draw and at Suwon FC (93rd minute goal) to narrowly win, then Seoul would be coming into this match 0-3-2 having only the two goals scored in Ulsan to show for a month of matches. The offensive ineptitude is likely coming from a constantly shuffling lineup. Hwang Sun-hong has not only been switching back and forth between the 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 of late, but has also had four different strike pairings in the last five matches in all competitions. As talented as the Seoul strikers truly are, it's going to be difficult to find a proper rhythm and convert chances when there's always a different face lining up next to them.

MB: Jeonbuk have beaten FC Seoul three times this year, and now have an opportunity to make it four. How do you think Hwang will set up to avoid this in the first leg?

RW: With the first leg in Jeonju, I'd expect Hwang to switch back to the 4-4-2 and try to limit the damage. Kwak Tae-hwi was arguably the MVP of the Quarterfinals for Seoul and has rightly been named to the Korean National Team squad yet again, but he's going to need some help to stall Jeonbuk's boisterous offense. Osmar will obviously be Kwak's centerback partner, and I'd expect to see Ko Kwang-min and Kim Chi-woo slot into the fullback roles with both having shown proper knowledge and management of the "dark arts" getting quite physical with Luneng in the last round. Also look for Yojiro Takahagi to return to the center of the pitch as he's one of the best in K-League at providing defensive coverage while maintaining his facilitator role shuffling the ball from the defense to whichever forwards Hwang decides to start.

MB: Who will FC Seoul look towards to make the necessary difference? 

RW: It has to be Adriano. Even though he's come up short in the league of late, he's still the leading scorer in ACL this year and is just one away from the tournament record 13 set by Muriqui back in 2013. Simply put, he's owned this tournament. As Dan Pordes noted in his Key Players piece, "the Brazilian has shown clinical penalty box instincts, scoring all of his continental goals from within the 18-yard box." Seoul has a glut of attacking talent, but none are anywhere near as ruthless near the goal as Adriano. Having played just 30 of Seoul's last 180+ minutes in ACL, he scored a 69th minute nail in the coffin vs Luneng in the first leg and put the game to bed 3-1. He's started in the previous two K-League matches, so any rust lingering from his overly long suspension should be well shaken off by now and he should be ready to go for the momentous match this Wednesday.

MB: With Jeonbuk only drawing a blank four times across all competitions this year, and have already netted six in two visits to Sangam, how crucial will an away goal in Jeonju be to Seoul's chances? 

RW: As Dan Patrick may say "you can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them." And that's precisely what Seoul will be attempting to do Wednesday night knowing full well that a clean sheet is practically out of the question. I mean... Jeonbuk's been shut out once since mid June, and that wasn't at home. They managed to score in the other 16 league matches they played during that time. So to avoid heading into the second leg at a huge deficit, Seoul needs to score. More importantly, and as you alluded to, it can be assumed Jeonbuk will get one on October 19th when these two teams meet for the second leg at Seoul World Cup Stadium. Should Seoul fail to get a road goal in leg one, they'll be surrendering a huge tiebreaker and honestly won't be able to recover. I don't want to full out say they can't win this series if they don't score at least one Wednesday... but they can't win this series if they don't score at least one Wednesday.

MB: Prediction?

RW: Though the offense has struggled of late, the defense has been stout and knows full well they have to put in a Herculean effort in Jeonju. Jeonbuk will have some joy, but it'll be limited by Kwak and Osmar up the middle. On the other side, I expect Adriano to start and I expect Adriano to score. It's not overly sexy, but this one looks to be a cagey, low scoring draw with both teams a bit too afraid to make a mistake.

Ryan's Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 1-1 FC Seoul

Ryan asks, Matthew answers

Ryan Walters: The last time we saw Jeonbuk in ACL they utterly destroyed Chinese giant Shanghai SIPG 5-0. Not only was the score tremendously lopsided, but Jeonbuk also dominated every statistical category from possession down to corner kicks. Was this the K-League champs asserting their dominance in the ACL or was Sven-Göran Eriksson's side simply not up to the challenge?

Matthew Binns: I am sure that the magnitude of the final scoreline served as a sobering realisation to the Chinese Super League that you cannot just buy expensive foreign talent, play them with average domestic players, and expect a return on your investment so soon after making it. The away leg in Shanghai was already a difficult affair that Jeonbuk had arguably edged on performance, but the home leg was just cementing the reputation of a midfield that is not only the best in Korea, but also one of the most threatening on this continent. The scoreline may have been exaggerated somewhat as a result of Shanghai SIPG's deserved red card, but they were already two goals behind at this point and looked ready to concede more. Jeonbuk are peaking at the right time in this competition, and will be relishing the visit of K-League title rivals FC Seoul

RW: Our own Marco Nakamura recently wrote about the disappointment that is Edu. Do you think it was a fair assessment? Outside of this season, he had a decent showing in ACL with 3 goals in 8 ACL appearances (5 starts) for Jeonbuk last year. Do you see him factoring into this match or has Choi Kang-hee already moved on?

MB: I think there were some points hidden in there, certainly in terms of who he is keeping out of the squad and currently damaging his previous reputation. I addressed his piece in fuller detail in my preview for the Jeju United game, but I will reiterate the key points. I believe it is far too soon to judge the acquisition of Edu as he has only featured in seven games. I do not think Edu is a failure, but he has been underwhelming so far. This is due to having played the second half of last season in the Chinese second division, as well as a significant lack of competitive match experience for the first seven months of 2016. He needs time, something he will get in the league once the title is secured. A full pre-season would also go a long way to improving his on-field performance. I certainly do not think he should be sold in the winter, but I would not wish for him to start in a fixture of Wednesday evening's magnitude.

RW: Leonardo rightly gets the bulk of Jeonbuk's ACL acclaim with 6 goals and 2 assists through 10 matches, but Ricardo Lopes is quietly having a solid campaign with a goal and 4 assists to his name. He also bagged a brace vs FC Seoul in their vital July 20th match that pushed Jeonbuk out of reach at the top of the K-League table. How key is Lopes to Jeonbuk's success against Seoul? 

MB: If it were not for the shouts for Kim Bo-kyung's recall to the Korean national squad, Lopes would also be considered as one of Jeonbuk's signings of the season. In addition to the goals and assists in this competition you have mentioned, he is also the second highest scorer in the club's league campaign, finding the net on 10 occasions and assisting 6. Furthermore, unlike Leonardo, none of his goals have been from the penalty spot. His ability to dribble and beat players, as well as offer that final killer pass or shot, provide the perfect compliment to Leonardo who operates on the opposite flank doing something very similar. Together, they allow for Jeonbuk to spread teams wider and also counter very quickly. With the creative talents of Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Jae-sung in the middle, there's no wonder Jeonbuk's underperforming strikers have gone relatively unnoticed.

RW: Jeonbuk and FC Seoul are both teams with big ambitions each year. If Seoul can pull off what has to be considered the upset and eliminate Jeonbuk from ACL, do you think that would give them the "win" in their 2016 rivalry even though Jeonbuk's dominated them in league play?

MB: If I could give up the wins over FC Seoul for Jeonbuk's guaranteed progression here, then I would. While it has been great to have defeated them three times (Jeonbuk has defeated them more than any other side this year), if Jeonbuk do not reach the Champions League final, then the large number of winter acquisitions, the rotated squads that cost them the FA Cup, and the enormous point gap they currently hold at the top will count for very little. Jeonbuk have won the title the last two years at an apparent canter, but they have failed to show progress in this tournament. This is the trophy they need to show evidence of success, and a defeat to rivals Seoul with the final in touching distance would be heartbreaking.

RW: Prediction?

MB: As a supporter, I am incredibly nervous about this game, although I still think Jeonbuk have a team more than capable of winning. FC Seoul must be careful as, if they try to attack too much in search of much needed away goal, I can see Jeonbuk punishing them on the counter. I also believe the likes of Leonardo and Lopes will once again step up when needed to ensure Jeonbuk enter the second leg in winning position.

Matthew's Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 FC Seoul


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