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Writers Chat: Jeju United vs Jeonnam Dragons

K-League's third and fifth place teams square off this Sunday with both eyes on the 2017 AFC Champions League. Jeju already has one foot in the door sitting securely in third coming off their first ever win in Jeonju as the only team to beat Jeonbuk this year. Jeonnam kept hopes alive by grinding out a 1-0 win at Sangju last week and will need to pick up all three points on the road again this weekend if they're to play throughout Asia next year. To talk Champions League and how each team got to this point, I chatted with our Jeju columnist Duncan Elder about the last meeting between these two this year.

Ryan Asks, Duncan Answers

Ryan Walters: Jeju heads into this match as the only K-League team to beat Jeonbuk in 2016 having picked up their first ever win in Jeonju World Cup Stadium. Where does that win rank in Jeju lore and what kind of boost do you think it'll give the team for the remaining four matches?

Duncan Elder: It was a huge win for Jeju. The thing is though, while it was great to become the first team to beat Jeonbuk, what really made it special was the fact that it put us four points clear of Ulsan in fourth. Kim Ho-nam’s reaction after scoring the winner was, I think, more down to getting the three points than beating Jeonbuk! As with most teams in the league, Jeju don’t have a good record against against Jeonbuk though so it was great to get a win there when it mattered most. In terms of a boost for the future, I think it will be huge. Whatever happened during that game we would have had a great chance of finishing in the ACL places, but winning really put us in the driving seat. We now know that we need only a couple more wins to have a great chance of finishing third.

RW: As Matt Binns pointed out, it shouldn't be too surprising to folks that Jeju knocked off Jeonbuk since the Islanders are the 3rd place team in the league and currently riding an eight game unbeaten streak. What changed for the team in late August and allowed them to go on this stunning run that may well see them into Champions League?

DE: The biggest change has been in the way we set up for games. After the game we lost 5-3 against Suwon we moved to a back three and became a little more cautious which really shored up our defence. Since that game we have only actually conceded six goals and recorded four clean sheets. Ironically, the way we beat Jeonbuk did perhaps seem like a throwback to our early season form due to going behind and a flurry of late goals, however, as it was against the champions I think we can forgive them!

RW: Speaking of streaks, the 8-4-2 run the Dragons put together to get themselves into Championship Round started with a shock 2-1 home win vs Jeju back on July 9th. However, the Islanders returned the favor when they met up in Round 33 and beat Jeonnam 2-0 to take the season series. It was the second time the Dragons were shut out by Jeju as well. What weaknesses do you see in the Jeju defense that Jeonnam may be able to exploit this weekend?

DE: As mentioned above we have been excellently defensively recently so it is hard to pick out a specific weakness. Playing with a back three means there is always the potential for space down the lines and Jeonbuk did cause a few problems with crosses into the box at the weekend so that could be the way to go.

RW: Prediction?

DE: We have been strong in both defense and attack recently so I think we’ll take another step closer to ACL qualification with a 2-0 win!

Duncan Asks, Ryan Answers

Duncan Elder: Like Jeju, Jeonnam had to change their manager to someone with an AFC ‘P’ coaching license in order to allow them to potentially compete in the AFC next year. How do you think this will affect the team and were there any changes at the weekend?

Ryan Walters: With Noh Sang-rae simply shifting down the bench one spot, I don't really think it'll change things much. The Jeonnam front office confirmed it'll be Noh's job again once he obtains his P Coaching License, so he's clearly the man they're thinking of for the future. In reality, I think he's still the one calling the shots right now and Song Kyung-sub is merely a figurehead. Of course, I could be quite wrong. The next few weeks will be telling with how the team plays and which subs are or aren't used. The one noticeable change so far was the absence of Park Gi-dong in the starting lineup, but that writing had been on the wall for quite a while as the former Sangju standout has struggled mightily in a Jeonnam jersey. It's hard to tell if that was Song putting his stamp on the team or simply an out of form striker getting some deserved bench time. One of the positives from all this is that the Dragons went back to a more ground-based offense with smarter, shorter passes instead of lobbing it up to Gi-dong, so hopefully that's something Song is going to continue moving forward.

DE: Also like Jeju, Jeonnam have had a significant upturn in form in the latter part of the season. What do you think this is down to and can you keep it up against the top teams in the championship round?

RW: The impact of summer signings Jair and Mrčela can't be overstated. Jair was largely an unknown for me taking the field in K-League for the first time since playing for Jeju in 2012 with a less than impress goal record in those gap years in tow. From his first game he changed the Dragons offense and provided the much needed hold-up play the midfield and defense's tired legs had been begging for. His ball control, crossing, and finishing overhauled the Jeonnam offense that had been target striker dependent for years. But, as the cliche goes "defense wins championships," and it's no different for Jeonnam. As good as Jair's been, Mrčela deserves to win K-Leauge United's Defender of the Year award and has completely changed the way the Dragons can approach a game. Before his addition, Jeonnam played a four man backline that had no physical presence and allowed far too many goals from a lack of organization. Mrčela stepped in and allowed the team to shift to a three man backline by shutting down the middle of the park almost single-handedly. The shift in formation allowed Hyun Young-min and captain Choi Hyo-jin to push out onto the wings where both are much more effective defensively and allowed more freedom to roam forward. Before Mrčela's arrival, both were pinned at the back scrambling to play catch up for centerbacks that had no idea where to be. Since the change the team has held seven clean sheets and has only allowed 2 or more goals three times. It's that defensive strength that's kept the Dragons in matches late on and allowed so many dramatic late goals to be the game winner.

Whether or not Jeonnam can keep this up facing off against the top half of the table will be interesting to follow. The 8-4-2 run they strung together to get into Championship Round came mainly at the expense of Relegation Round teams, but 10 of those 28 points came against the top six including three wins against three different teams (Jeju, Ulsan, and Sangju). If the Dragons were to have a fighting chance in Championship Round, then at the very least they had to take care of 6th place Sangju. They did, and now comes the real test. Luckily for Jeonnam they know they can go toe-to-toe with all four teams remaining having already knocked off Jeju and Ulsan this year and drawing against both Seoul and Jeonbuk. So... yeah, the Dragons certainly have it within them to compete with the top teams this month.

DE: If Jeonnam are to overtake Jeju into third place, a win today is absolutely crucial. However, in the last game between the two sides Jeju won 2-0 and were, in my opinion at least, just the better side. How do you think Jeonnam will approach today’s game? Will we see a more attacking approach than normal?

RW: I'd agree Jeju was the better side earlier this month and think all three results between the teams have been fair based on performance. It's tempting to say the key to the match will be quieting Jeju's offense on their home ground, but the fact is Jeju scores no matter where they are. They've netted 33 times at home and 30 times on the road, so that's pretty much a wash. While the Dragons certainly need to stay sharp and limit the damage, I think it's safe to say Jeju's going to score at least one this weekend. So if Jeonnam's to come away with the three points they desperately need to keep ACL hopes alive, then they must score multiple goals. Look for Bae Chun-suk to start up top again with the still struggling Park Gi-dong likely getting some more bench time. Bae hasn't exactly lit the world on fire up top with just three goals this year, but he fits far better into the three man attack than Park does and does a far better job of allowing Jugović (and possibly Han Chan-hee) to join the attack. I'd expect the Dragons to play cautious in the first half, but come out strong and make a push for a goal in the 45th-60th and leave the potential match winner for some late dramatics.

DE: Prediction?

RW: I'd love to be the optimist and say the Dragons will pull this one off, but Jeju's too good at home and riding far too high right now after beating Jeonbuk. I think playing a cautious first half will come back to haunt the Dragons and their characteristic late push will fall just short.

Jeju United 2-1 Jeonnam Dragons.

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