Writers Chat: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Al Ain FC AFC Final Preview (1st Leg)
This weekend sees the AFC Champions League 2016 play out the first half of it's conclusion with South Korea's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors playing host to the UAE's Al Ain FC. Our site's Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns (myself) is joined by sports writer for The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi, John McAuley to discuss what supporters and onlookers can expect when these two teams meet on Saturday evening.
Matthew asks, John answers
Matthew Binns: With the first leg being away from home for Al Ain, especially at a ground where visitors have often walked away with very little this year, how do you see the manager tactically approaching this game?
John McAuley: Zlatko will always say he’s playing the match to win, but he’ll know the final is different to any game he’s faced with Al Ain. Jeonbuk are especially strong at home, although he’ll be certainly looking to get an away goal. Al Ain have done well away from home in this year’s competition: after losing at El Jaish on Matchday 2 in the groups, they are unbeaten outside the UAE, with three wins from five matches.
As for tactics, Dalic traditionally favours a 4-2-3-1, but could employ Ahmed Barman alongside Lee Myung-joo and Amer Abdulrahman (if fit) in front of the back four for added protection, like he did in the semi-final second leg in Doha last month. Douglas dropped to the bench then, which was a surprise, with Omar Abdulrahman used as a ‘false nine’.
MB: If Al Ain are to have a chance, which key players will supporters be relying on to turn the leg in their favour?
JM: It’s rather stating the obvious, but Omar Abdulrahman is integral to their chances – as always. The playmaker has the ability to control the game’s tempo, even away from home, while he will look to release Caio, Douglas and Danilo Asprilla (should the latter two start) at every opportunity. Omar is favourite to win Asian player of the year for a reason: he's been phenomenal this season.
Other than Omar, Caio will be key to Al Ain’s chances. The Brazil-born winger has been excellent since joining this summer, and carries a real goal threat. And Lee is important as well, given the work he does in screening the Al Ain defence. The returning Khalid Essa in goal could be in for a busy evening, so needs to show his talent too.
MB: It’s been recently reported that the UAE Football Association attempted to postpone this fixture, with concerns that a number of Al Ain’s players will be set to feature on the international stage midweek and will not have ample time to be ready for this leg of the final. How much of a hindrance will this be to the squad’s preparations and could you see the coach taking certain measures in his team selection to account for this?
JM: The UAE’s match against Iraq provides a huge concern for Dalic. There could be as many as four Al Ain players in the starting line-up, and last month’s defeat to Saudi makes it a must-win game. Al Ain plan to leave for South Korea directly following the Iraq match and will be hoping none of their players pick up any injuries, while also minimising the disruption caused by the later travel. Dalic has been without four of his main players since around November 3 (plus Amer Abdulrahman, who was injured), which was far from ideal. Of course, though, he’ll look to field his best side if possible.
MB: Are there any particular Jeonbuk players who you think are likely to cause a headache for Al Ain in this final?
JM: The obvious one is Leonardo, who’s proven his ability in front of goal in this year’s competition and should cause centre-backs Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem problems. Korean international Lee Jae-sung is another whose influence is a worry, especially in terms of creating chances for teammates. Other than that, Lee Dong-gook is a real threat from the bench, and his experience could be invaluable (Al Ain don’t really have someone of that ilk), while Kim Shin-wook is important to how effective Leonardo and Ricardo Lopes are. There’s more than enough there to trouble Al Ain.
JM: I’ll go 2-1 to Jeonbuk, although I fear if they score once Al Ain may lose their focus and the tie could be over before the second leg. The visitors definitely possess the tools to get an away goal, though.
John's Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 Al Ain FC
John asks, Matthew answers
John McAuley: How will losing out on the domestic title, and in the fashion they did, affect Jeonbuk for this game?
Matthew Binns: It has certainly knocked the wind out of any supporters' sails ahead of this tie so who knows the repercussions it has had on the players' mental states. Fortunately for the team though there has been an international break, with South Korean team manager Uli Stielike breaking from habit and opting for a number of K-League players to bulk up his squad, including six from Jeonbuk. Admittedly, I had first envisaged this as a hindrance to the squad's preparation but now I am optimistically thinking a change of setup and scenery in the immediate aftermath could do most of them some good, assuming there is no fitness concerns upon their return that is. In regards to the other players, they will have been given significant time off to collect their thoughts and regroup before returning to training. It was never going to be ideal, but the break should also assist in arresting a bout of inconsistent form the team found themselves in towards the end of the domestic campaign. Finally, with most players having won the league title before, yet have failed previously in the Champions League, I am sure the team will be fully focused going into this first leg and will have put recent disappointments to the back of their mind.
JM: How will Jeonbuk look to nullify Omar Abdulrahman?
MB: Given the role he plays as a playmaker and provider, Jeonbuk would most likely look to their midfield as a means to shut him down and starve the attacks. The Korean side however do have a concerning lack of depth when it comes to defensive midfielders. Lee Ho, perhaps the strongest prospect, is sidelined with injury and Shin Hyung-min is ineligible to be fielded for this competition. This means the responsibility will fall upon the shoulders of 20 year-old Jang Yun-ho as it has done for large parts of the season and the previous ACL knockout stages. In all fairness to Jang, he has performed admirably considering his lack of experience but, as it is the final, there is the possibility manager Choi Kang-hee will hold Kim Bo-kyung further back to assist the youngster in shielding the defence. What this would entail is Choi neutering his attacking midfield quartet by switching from a fast counter attacking 4-1-4-1 to a more standard 4-2-3-1. However, considering the threat Kim poses alongside Lopes, Lee Jae-seung and Leonardo, restricting him could be an opportunity wasted to obtain a first leg lead, especially given that this tie is in Jeonju. It all really depends on how much faith Choi has in the youngster, or in his attacking players to outscore Al Ain.
JM: Which players will be key to their chances of taking a lead to Al Ain on November 26?
MB: Unfortunately there is not really an original answer here, as it will most likely be Brazilian wingers Leonardo and Lopes who will make the biggest contribution to the cause. Both have been simply superb this year in terms of the chances they have facilitated in addition to the numerous goals they have scored. Leonardo's ability to convert from long range, in particular from free kicks, has helped pull Jeonbuk out of a few sticky situations this year whereas the pace and finishing Lopes offers has caught a number of teams unaware. Attacking midfielder Lee Jae-sung is also always worth mentioning, especially if the persistent rumours of him being Europe-bound during the winter window are true as this could very well be his last game at Jeonju World Cup Stadium. I am sure the fan-favourite would love to leave on a high and repay the crowd with the trophy they most covet.
A player who may have a significant say in keeping Al Ain out is the returned Kim Hyung-il who had been sidelined up until recently with injury. Making a surprise appearance in the starting fold against FC Seoul on the final day of the season, the defender is perhaps Jeonbuk's strongest option at centre back, not only demonstrating solid technical ability in defending, but strong character and leadership qualities that have often helped spur his team on in games and keep the back line organised.
JM: How do Jeonbuk/their supporters view Al Ain, especially in terms of their place among the Asian elite?
MB: Truthfully, through fault of the competition's format and perhaps also the fact these two clubs have never faced each other before, I would imagine the average Jeonbuk supporter will be unsure about what to expect from the most current iteration of Al Ain come Saturday. After all, it has been a few years since they last ventured this way, losing to FC Seoul in 2011. With the East and West sides kept apart until the final, the reputation of Chinese Super League and J-League teams has particularly grown within the supporters minds here, yet knowledge of their Western counterparts has dwindled. That said, I am sure some will have kept tabs on their progress, especially given that South Korean international and former Pohang Steelers starlet Lee Myung-joo has played consistently for the UAE club since 2014. I would also imagine that most supporters will have been taking note throughout the knockout stages of the competition. I am confident the home fans will not be taking anything for granted though and will be anticipating quite the battle this weekend.
In terms of Jeonbuk, they will be under no illusion about the threat posed by Al Ain as well as their stature within the UAE. While they boast a similar history to the Korean side in this competition, they also pose quite the formidable attack with the range of talent mentioned above. I have been a strong critic of Choi Kang-hee's management this season, but there is no denying that this is the trophy he has set out to win, going as far as to sacrifice the league title to achieve it. With everything now riding on this competition, he will have hopefully been preparing for this opposition and will not underestimate them over the next two weekends.
MB: Considering this could be a send-off for a key player, potentially the manager, and even a fitting swan song for a certain 37 year-old talisman striker desperate to claim this particular title (although it should be said that he does still have one year left on his contract), this clash certainly does have the blockbuster feel befitting of it from Jeonbuk's perspective. Hopefully the Korean side will live up to their billing and not flounder under the floodlights as they did against FC Seoul nearly two weeks ago. I also see Jeonbuk narrowly winning this leg, making for a tense finale in a week's time.
Matthew's Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 Al Ain FC
A massive thanks to John McAuley for joining me on this particular piece. As mentioned, John is a sports writer for The National newspaper, Abu Dhabi. For further information on UAE and Asian football, you can follow him on Twitter for his opinions, analysis and articles.
Have Your Say
Have your own views on how the game will play out? Disagree with either of the writers' points? Then make sure to leave your comments below or join the discussion on Twitter and Facebook. Also cast your vote in our pre-match Twitter poll below to see what others are predicting.
POLL: Who comes out on top in the first leg of the #ACL2016 final? #JEOvAIN Preview: https://t.co/qDfer4GRFf— Matthew Binns (@Matt_Binns) November 17, 2016
AFC Final Meet and Greet
To celebrate Jeonbuk reaching the final and representing Korean club football on Asia's largest stage, K-League United is hitting the road! A number of our writers and contributors will be on hand prior to the game to say hello, discuss the game and enjoy a beverage or two. It would also be a great opportunity to thank you in person for your continued readership.
If you fancy stopping by then make sure to RSVP to our Facebook Event page so we know to expect you.
Furthermore, we will also be previewing the game LIVE on our Facebook page an hour before kick-off to discuss our writers thoughts about the teams' formations and line-ups in addition to answering your questions. If you have any points you'd like us to elaborate on during the online broadcast, then make sure to leave your questions below by Friday evening.