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Writer's Chat: Jeonnam Dragons vs Jeonbuk Motors Preview

The reigning champions head South one last time this year for the fourth and final Jeolla Derby of 2016. With two wins and a draw to their credit, Jeonbuk holds the advantage this year, but have been stumbling of late and the Dragons are desperate for a win to keep their slim AFC Champions League hopes alive. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matt Binns and I chat about this weekend's matchup, psychological advantages, head scratching lineups, and a bit about those plucky Islanders from Jeju.

Matt Asks, Ryan Answers

Matt Binns: Third place may now be just out of reach, but can you see Jeonnam Dragons stealing that fourth spot and having a very slim shot at Champion’s League qualification?

Ryan Walters: The 9 point gap the Islanders opened up when they predictably beat the Dragons on Jeju certainly seems insurmountable with just three games left. Mathematically possible for now, but I have a feeling it won't be by the end of the weekend. However, should Seoul or Ulsan claim the FA Cup, then Jeonnam can find their way into international competition with a 4th place finish. Ulsan's currently holding the spot just three points ahead of the Dragons with 49 on the season, so it's possible. Especially with the two still to face each other one last time in league play. However, Ulsan has a much easier pair of games before they head to Suncheon to face Jeonnam. Away to Sangju and then at home vs Jeju. Obviously Jeju will be a tough test, but at least it's not on the island, so the Tigers have a decent shot of seeing that one out. Jeonnam, on the other hand, must go through the league's top 2 teams who're both fighting for the title. Even if Jeonnam gets a result this weekend vs Jeonbuk, their reward is a midweek trip all the way up to Seoul. So... it's possible Jeonnam will be in Champions League next season, but seeing that it would take a three game run through two title contenders and unlike anything they've done in memory, I can't really see it happening.

MB: Despite scoring three goals, Jeonnam still fell to Jeju 5-3 with Jugović also seeing red late on. What do feel went wrong in the game and were there any positives to be taken?

RW: Apparently no one in the Dragons managerial core has heard the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Because the Dragons most certainly weren't broke heading into late September, but both Noh Sang-rae and now Song Kyung-sub have felt the need to "fix" them. Throughout the Dragons superb summer stretch they employed a 3-4-3 that used the speed of Choi Hyo-jin, Ahn Yong-woo, and Jair to dominate the channels and keep the ball on the ground. But, as soon as Park Gi-dong showed up from Sangju, it all went out the window and the Dragons went back to target forward centric that failed them so spectacularly earlier in the season. Sunday's match at Jeju was merely the latest example of regression with the team employing a 3-5-2 with Jair on the bench. Let me repeat that so it can sink in: Jeonnam started a must win game on the road with their leading scorer, Jair, on the bench. What's more, Song decided to give Han Ji-won and Kim Kyeong-jae their 5th and 6th appearances of the season seemingly just for giggles. The Dragons manager didn't set the team up to succeed and unsurprisingly they didn't.

That said, they were certainly unlucky to concede the first goal after it took an odd bounce, and Tomi Mrčela had a rare bad day at the back getting caught ball watching and too far from his man on two of the goals. But the true positives of the day were the team's fight and the machine that is Choi Hyo-jin. The Dragons 33-year-old captain almost single-handedly got them back in the game with a marvelous far post strike for Jeonnam's first, and a nice run and assist on the second. Being down 3-0 on the road to the surging 3rd place team in the league, it would've been easy to hang their heads and call it a day. However, led by their captain, the Dragons fought back and made a game of it. For a little while anyway. Also, Jair pulled off one of the filthiest nutmegs of the year and pinged it top corner just for good measure to end the game. Not the worst note to end on.

MB: Jeonnam could really have a say in the outcome of their local rival’s title bid here. How do you see them setting up to neutralise what could be a team desperate and hungry to get back to winning ways?

RW: Even though it's a home game for Jeonnam, I fully expect them to bunker and go for the draw here. In fact, I think they'll aim for a draw vs both Jeonbuk and Seoul and hope Ulsan slips up and gives the Dragons a shot at ACL. It's just how they've approached big games all season. If that's indeed the approach they're going for, I'd expect another 5 man midfield to clog up the center of the pitch and negate any impact Jeonbuk's other-wordly midfielders might make.

MB: Prediction?

RW: Given both teams head scratching line up choices of late and Jeonbuk's overall poor form, I unfortunately don't see this being much of a head turner. I'll be optimistic and say the Dragons can pull off the draw they're going for.

Jeonnam Dragons 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai


Ryan Asks, Matt Answers

Ryan Walters: 
Not only is Jeonbuk's Invincibles run over, but they've looked tremendously human of late with two losses and two draws in their last four matches in all competitions. As Alastair Middleton pointed out in the ACL Semifinal preview, it was psychologically important for Seoul to pick up the victory over Jeonbuk for a mental edge for their pivotal match on the final day. Now that the champs have been knocked off in the league as well, do you think they've lost the intimation edge they used to have over teams?

Matt Binns: I suppose there is a case for that, but I would also argue that they have additionally lost the incision that they were previously cutting through teams with. Whether one has contributed towards the other is a possibility though. I have banged the rotation drum to death this year, but the manager’s sudden decision to pick up his early-season habits now sees two iterations of the team both struggling to score. This is of no surprise as the expected first team have rarely been wheeled out recently so as to protect them in bubble wrap for the Champions League. However, in doing so, they have effectively become a second string as well, rarely receiving consistent game time and losing any rhythm they previously had. Meanwhile, with Choi’s other set of players, they are rotated in with little consistency for team selection and tactics. The manager has taken two teams worth of players and, in the space of a month, transformed both into two incohesive units at the most crucial moment of the season. While fingers will understandably be pointed at excuses such as “running out of steam” and psychological factors, the biggest cause for this slump is the manager, and he will be almost fully at fault if Jeonbuk suffer an end of season implosion.

RW: From the outside, Jeonbuk's horribly timed skid could be pinned almost solely on the offense. With just four goals through four matches and being held scoreless last weekend in Ulsan, the team's certainly struggling to find the back of the net. What's gone wrong and why hasn't manager Choi Kang-hee tapped former Jeonnam standout Lee Jong-ho more frequently to help?

MB: Lee Jong-ho, he is a player full of promise but has been pushed down the pecking order by the manager’s penchant for nostalgia in the form of a still unfit Edu. He is also a player who has best shown his ability through a consistent run in the team, rather than through impact. Unfortunately for the player, and now the club, there is now not enough time for him to be reintroduced into proceedings as there are not enough games left for him to find form. Hopefully, if there’s a change of coaching personnel at the close season, Jeonbuk should get the best out of him next year. Otherwise, the manager has a choice of three strikers. Edu has not scored since his return, but the manager favours him in a rotated line-up, Lee Dong-gook cannot manage more than one game per week due to fitness (and even then not a full one), and Kim Shin-wook, a player who I have lambasted countless times this season for his inability to score or control the ball. As of this moment though, the latter is our best hope of creating a goal up front as long as he is supported by an able midfield who can feed off him. After nearly a season of fearing his name on the team sheet, I am hoping Kim Shin-wook starts on Saturday.

RW: With Jeonbuk's offense struggling, they'll need to lean heavily on the defense to keep Jeonnam off the scoreboard, which is no easy task. The Dragons have been held scoreless in just two of their previous 11 matches (only once at home), and Jeonbuk only have four away clean sheets this season. How will the green men line up this weekend to stop Jeonnam and who do you think they'll need to target most?

MB: Unfortunately, I do not think Jeonbuk have the defence or defensive organisation to keep out Jeonnam this weekend. I am particularly fearful of summer signing Jair, a player who could have propelled the home side into the Champions League if he had been purchased in the winter. He looks set to be a phenomenal talent and I am sure Jeonnam will be desperate to hold onto him through the next couple of windows. If Jeonbuk are to keep their Jeolla rivals out however, it will most likely be through the fielding of Park Won-jae, Lim Jong-eun, Choi Chul-soon and Kim Chang-soo, as that is the majority of the defenders they actually have available (with the possibility of Kim Young-chan on the bench). Choi could also drop ex-Ansan recruit Shin Hyung-min back into defence as he did against Jeju, but he is more likely to feature him in a defensive midfield role. Hopefully we can expect to see the attacking might of Lopes, Lee Jae-sung, Kim Bo-kyung and Leonardo in midfield, but hopefully they put in a better shift to that which they did against FC Seoul ten days prior.

RW: Would a loss to their Jeolla rivals this weekend spell the end of Jeonbuk's title hopes?

MB: Not necessarily, as they will still have control of their fate plus two fixtures at home, but if Jeonbuk were then to go on and concede the title then they may look to this as one of the key fixtures that cost them. There is no reason Jeonbuk should be looking for anything less than three points here and certainly have the players capable of scoring the goals. FC Seoul also played midweek in the FA Cup and have a slightly more difficult run-in what with playing away to a high-flying Jeju this weekend. Therefore, this fixture could potentially hand the advantage back to Jeonbuk in the race and the reigning champions should be determined to seize it. The only issue is whether or not the manager will want to seize it also.

RW: Prediction?

MB: As shown against Jeju, Jeonnam can certainly find the net of recent, even when losing. Jeonbuk will most likely be unable to keep them out, but do have the talent to potentially score more. Going by recent form though, and that this is a local derby, I think this will be yet another two points dropped for Choi Kang-hee’s men and a victory for the K-League head office who will look set to see a title fight on the final day.

Jeonnam Dragons 2-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors


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