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2016 Korean FA Cup Semi-Final Preview: Ulsan vs Suwon Bluewings

(Suwon's beleaguered boss pulled off a tactical master stroke on Saturday but still faces vocal critics at his football club. Photo courtesy of http://www.footballist.co.kr)

A scintillating display from Suwon Bluewings blew Seongnam away at the weekend, whilst Ulsan Hyundai earned a credible draw against Jeonbuk, leaving this Korean FA Cup semi-final hanging in the balance as both teams go all out to take the ACL qualification spot that comes with winning the cup. For Ulsan, they atleast have a 2nd chance in the league, but for struggling Suwon it's all or nothing.  


Suwon vs Seongnam - 22/10/16

Suwon produced their best performance of the season at the weekend as they dominated Seongnam from the first whistle to the last whistle. They displayed an attacking flair that hasn't been seen at Big Bird stadium since 2015, and a security in defence that has been severely lacking this season. Granted, it was produced against a Seongnam team in free fall. But the fluency of their play that day would suggest that even a team in the top 3 may have been taken to task if they were playing. 

The link-up play between Johnathan and, man of the match, Kwon Chang-hoon was especially pleasing. Chang-hoon was given a free role and was allowed to drift all over the pitch, allowing him to pop up during almost every prominent attack for Suwon. It was Kwon Chang-hoon's excellent through ball that found Johnathan with an inch of space on the edge of the area, and the Brazilian dispatched a difficult chance with absolute ease, firing a vicious shot off the inside of the post for his 8th goal in the last 6 games. Johnathan and Chang-hoon were both at it again in the 2nd half as great hold up play by Johnathan allowed him enough space to chest a pass to an on-rushing Chang-hoon who smashed a well controlled volley against the post. And it was Johnathan's excellently executed dummy from a free kick in the 73rd minute that fooled almost every Seongnam player as Kwon Chang-hoon struck a laser like shot into the bottom corner for Suwon's 2nd goal. The two players looked to have an almost telepathic communication and the balance of Johnathan's power and strength, mixed with Chang-hoon's skill and awareness made Suwon look like a frightening proposition. 

Every player played to their potential, but both wing-back's also had outstanding games. Hong-chul, playing at left wing-back defended well and was always an outlet on the left side. His calmness on the ball allows players to look for him even when he is marked and I cannot remember him conceding position once in the entire 90 minutes. Jang Ho-ik, the right wing-back, probably had his best game in a Suwon shirt. He was a constant menace on the right side and his combination work with Lee Sang-ho was a delight to watch. One solo run in the first half almost saw him score his maiden professional goal, but after beating 3 players, and playing a neat one-two pass with Chang-hoon, he was very unlucky to see his shot cannon back off the post. 

Seo Jung-won reverted back to playing two holding midfielders, and I must say, this is one of the few decisions he has got right all season. He opted to play Cho Won-hee and Lee Jong-sung at the base of midfield and both players had fine games, whilst not making any headlines. But that is exactly what Suwon have been missing all season, and the pair busily went about blocking and breaking up play. It was also the first time that Suwon fans have been able to witness Lee Jong-sung's passing game. He sprayed the ball around well, displaying a great range of short and long passes. One pass in the first half was spell bounding, as on the run he perfectly dropped a 30 yard ball over the Seongnam back line only for Kwon Chang-hoon to slice his effort horribly wide. 


It was a near faultless performance by Suwon, but any high hopes should be tempered as it was against a Seongnam team who are quite frankly awful at the moment. Suwon will come up against a much tougher team in Ulsan and they will once again need to rise to heights that they have rarely risen to this season.

Prediction

Suwon go into this game in much better spirits than they had 2 weeks ago, but they are heading to play a strong Ulsan team who have had a very successful year under manager Yoon Jung-hwan. Ulsan haven't been a prolific goal scoring team, having only scored 38 goals all season (only Suwon FC and Incheon have score less than that), but they have made themselves extremely difficult to beat. Much like Seongnam did last season, Ulsan have defended well and relied on a hand full of players to score the goals that have seen them climb up the table to challenge for that final ACL qualification place. Infact, 12 of their 13 victories in the league have come via a 1 goal margin. They are a strong, athletic and organised team that are very difficult to break down. 

Their defensive strength is mirrored in their centre-back pairing of Jeong Seung-hyun and Lee Jae-seong, who have both had tremendous seasons. I would say that they are probably the strongest pair of centre-backs in the league and their understanding has allowed Ulsan to accumulate 11 clean sheets this season. If Suwon are to break through the Ulsan defense it will be imperative that they allow players to break forward and support Johnathan, as he will have very little luck if he is left isolated against the Ulsan backline. 

Injuries aside, I don't think Seo Jung-won will change his starting line-up. Every player impressed against Seongnam and deserves their opportunity in such a high profile game as this. The evergreen Lee Jung-soo may drop out from the starting line-up as he usually struggles to complete two games in a week. However, Suwon have a ready made replacement as Yang Sang-min returned from injury at the weekend. The diminutive defender would be the perfect replacement using his speed to combat against Ulsan's athletic wingers whilst Kwak Kwang-min is asked to guard against the physical Mendy up front for Ulsan. 

I imagine that this will be a tight affair. Suwon won't go to Ulsan and expose themselves, and Ulsan's natural game is to play on the counter attack, which may result in a stalemate. Extra time may be a possibility, but with a huge Suwon derby on the horizon Suwon will most certainly want a result within the standard 90 minutes. This could be the perfect time to play Ulsan as they are now 3 games without a win and have conceded 5 goals in those games. I would like to see Suwon really take the game to Ulsan in the first half and drive them back. With Suwon's propensity to concede in the latter stages of games, the first goal will be vitally important. 

2 weeks ago I would have thought that Suwon would have no chance at winning this game, but with Ulsan's form dipping and Suwon producing their best football of the season last week, then who knows what could happen?

Predicted score: Ulsan 1 - 2 Suwon (After Extra Time)

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