Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs FC Seoul, Korean FA Cup Final Preview (1st Leg)
It's that time of year again when the whole of Korea braces itself for the biggest game in Korean football, the Supermatch. Although the rivalry has a long history already, Sunday will be the first time that these teams have ever met in the final of the FA Cup as Suwon Bluewings play host to FC Seoul in the 1st leg of the 2016 Korean FA Cup Final. Here, our Suwon Bluewings correspondent, Scott Whitelock, discusses all things Supermatch related with Korea Racing's, Alastair Middleton. First up, Alastair asks and Scott answers.
Alastair: After finishing K-League runners-up in two consecutive seasons, the Bluewings found themselves down in the relegation group this year. Post-split, however, they went unbeaten. Has a corner been turned or was it simply they were playing nobody decent in those final games?
Scott: To go unbeaten throughout the Relegation round of games would indicate that Suwon have certainly turned a corner. With the threat of relegation looming for almost every team in the bottom half of the table, the 5 games which they navigated their way through were not easy, end of season jaunts. Each game was a hard fought relegation scrap. And not only did Suwon come away with 3 victories and 2 draws, they also played some pretty stylish football too.
The main factor in their turnaround has been common sense decision making from their much maligned manager, Seo Jung-won. Whereas earlier in the season he was making peculiar decision after peculiar decision, he is now managing as a stable tactician should. He has stopped rotating his back 3/4, which he was very fond of, and he is also playing Suwon's key attacking threats in their preferred positions, instead of trying to re-invent the wheel, something which he was also fond of attempting in past weeks. The tactical switch to a wing-back system has shored the team up and given them a fluency that they severely lacked for two thirds of the season. Moreover, the late season arrival of Hong-Chul after a long injury lay-off has certainly helped, with the left-back being instrumental in Suwon's late surge.
Besides from a couple of crazy late collapses against Incehon and Suwon FC, Suwon have been playing consistently well since mid-September and shouldn't be taken lightly by any opposition,
Alastair: It seems Samsung is becoming increasingly ambivalent towards sport - or at least determined to make it pay its own way which is hard to do in Korea. Their usually all-conquering baseball team had a dreadful year amid budget cuts and their volleyball and basketball teams aren't exactly pulling up trees either. Then there's the Bluewings. How important do you feel winning the FA Cup - and thereby securing a Champions League spot - is for the future of the club?
Scott: With regards to the future of the football club, I don't think participating in the ACL is a benefit or a weakness. The owners actively cut the budget to shreds this year despite the club taking part in the ACL group stages. I think the playing squad will be downsized over the next 2 years despite how many competitions they win or qualify for.
What is important is that the club find a way to balance their budget whilst remaining competitive, as Ulsan and, particularly, Jeju have shown this year. Jeju do not operate with a huge budget but they have set the bench mark that Suwon should follow. Suwon need to now concentrate on developing the young talent that they already have, whilst also trying to poach young, promising footballers from the varying levels of Korean football. Rather than gambling a huge amount of money on untried and unknown foreign players, Suwon should be focusing on tried and tested Korean talent and also on improving their own domestic scouting system.
I genuinely don't think the spending dominance that we have seen from Jeonbuk and Seoul this year will continue much longer. With Korean attendances dwindling and money drying up from all sources of revenue it is only a matter of time before both those clubs reign in their spending. If that is the case, the dark clouds currently on Suwon's horizon may just turn to glorious sunshine in the upcoming seasons.
Alastair: The Final is being played over two-legs this year, something I'm not in favour of myself. What's your opinion of the change and how do you see Suwon approaching the first leg?
Scott: I also share your opinion and am slightly baffled as to why the Korean FA took the decision to alter the final to a 2-legged format.
As we all know, the Super Match is the most famous and highly anticipated game in Korean football, but is also renowned for the cagey and defensive games that it produces. And I don't think the change in format will do anything to improve the quality of football for neutral onlookers.
The 3 games that these two have contested previously this season have also been games of this ilk, with two boring 1-1 draws, and Seoul edging the one victory by 1 goal to nil. Infact, the game which Seoul won was more down to Suwon's inability to finish a couple of glaring goal scoring opportunities, rather than an inspired performance from the Seoulites. And I really don't see the style of this game changing much from those. Both team's won't want to concede any ground going into the crucial 2nd leg next weekend, and as such, chances may be at a premium.
The one thing that should alarm Seoul is that the 3 previous games this season have come at times when Suwon were playing atrocious football and also didn't have a recognised goalscorer on the pitch. And both these circumstances have now changed. Suwon have now lost only 1 game in their last 14 and have looked formidable in their last 4 games. And at the top of the pitch they have the in-form striker in the K League in Johnathan. With 12 goals in 12 games the Braizilian is the main goal threat in the Suwon team. Although he isn't the most skillful or flashiest of players, he has added a ruthlessness to a team that has been soft-centred for the vast majority of the season, and his predatory like finishing is going to be vital for Suwon's chances in both legs.
Alastair: What is your prediction for the game?
I think that Suwon will control the vast majority of this game. The front three of Johnathan, Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Sang-ho have really been in tune over recent weeks, and with the added threat of Yeom Ki-hun coming from the bench, I think Suwon will be more of a match for Seoul than in the recent past. However, having said that, I don't think the Suwon defence can go a whole game without stopping either Adriano or Dejan Damjanovic. Because of this, I think the game is likely to finish in a score draw.
Predicted score: Suwon 1 - 1 FC Seoul
Now, Scott asks and Alastair answers:
Scott: Seoul were in superb form towards the back end of the season, and a magical run was topped off with their heroics in Jeonju to claim the 2016 K League title. Do you think the stress, followed by the euphoria, of that day may have interrupted their run or are you confident they can follow on from where they left off?
Alastair: I don’t think either team is helped by the three week gap between the end of the league and the first leg of the final so that’s a bit of a leveller. From a motivational point of view, you may have a point too in that this is a tie that can rescue Suwon’s season whereas Seoul already have silverware on the mantelpiece and a ticket to next year’s Champions League safely tucked in their pockets (I’m going to get slaughtered for this in some quarters but having won the league, there’s part of me that wouldn’t mind Suwon being in the Champions League next season as it means more easily reachable mid-week games to attend – well three of them until they go out tamely in the group stage again!).
However, that also puts all the pressure on Suwon and Seoul can maybe be a bit more relaxed. Hwang Sun-hong surely won’t allow them to approach the game in this way though and the way the mood changed around the club when the title was suddenly back in their sights and gave them the kind of resolve that saw them to those away wins in Jeju and Jeonju and grinding out the home win against Jeonnam, gives me confidence here. I expect Seoul to come in motivated to retain the FA Cup and complete what will be a quite unlikely double.
Scott: Seoul have been blessed all season with a group of top quality strikers. Adriano has been a reliable scorer, Dejan makes the team tick and is the focal point of the attack and Park Chu-young has chipped in with some vitally important goals along the way. Which of these 3 would you say is the most important to the team and who can cause Suwon the most problems?
Alastair: You summarise their roles and value to the team very well. Park Chu-young is finally finding his place after all these years, dropping back into midfield a lot more often and has been excellent this season. While Jung Jo-gook at Gwangju may have ended the season as top scorer, Adriano is the most dangerous striker in the K-League and the one that everybody would like to have in their team. However, Park and Adriano are essentially replaceable; in fact there’s a guy by the name of Johnathan who plays for a team that finished way down the league this year who would slot nicely into the Seoul side should Adriano get a big money move back to China in the close season! Neither Park nor Adriano started in the final game at Jeonbuk though and while Park came on to be the hero, Dejan was the one they couldn’t do without from the start. He hasn’t been as prolific a goal-scorer as in the past but with Adriano around, he hasn’t needed to be. As you said, Dejan makes the team tick and at 35-years-old remains the key man. If he plays well over the course of these ties, it’s going to be very difficult for Suwon.
Part of Seoul’s consistency and success over the years is that they tend to recruit foreign players well (admittedly there are mistakes too - the likes of Raphael, Kevin Hatchi and Kiki Musampa aren’t recalled with too much fondness) and for years they built the team around Adilson at the back and Dejan and Molina up front. Now it’s Osmar and Dejan. Of course,
Seoul’s budget gives them the luxury of being able to recruit players who have already proven they can live and play in Asia and it makes a big difference.
Scott: We rarely see attractive football in 'Super Match' games, instead, the games becoming wars of attrition. How do you expect this game will play out and can neutral supporters still remain hopeful of an entertaining spectacle?
Alastair: Domestic cup-ties being played over two legs really don’t lend themselves to being entertaining as teams tend to be very cautious in the first leg – the cynic in me wouldn’t be surprised me if both teams play for penalties from the start of game 1. On the plus side, both Suwon and Seoul have had issues with their defences (I think only Sangju let in more than Suwon over the course of the season) so such a strategy may not work for very long. There were only a total of five goals scored across the three matches that the two teams played against each other in the K-League but the last of those was back in August when neither team was exactly flying. The “Supermatch” hasn’t been super for a while so let’s hope the “Superfinal” can provide a couple of more exciting pair of games this time around.
Scott: What is your score prediction?
Alastair: Having said that, I think it will be tight with Seoul’s slight edge in terms of overall quality just about making the difference over the two legs. 1-1 in Suwon, 2-1 in Sangam, Seoul winning 3-2 on aggregate after a very nervous last 20 minutes.
K League United would once more like to extend their thanks to Alastair for joining us to preview yet another K League clash. As well as his work with the Korean Racing Authority, he can often be found in various football stadiums taking in a wide spectrum of K-League action. He's even been known to voice his opinion from time to time during the occasional appearance on Korean footballing podcast 48 Shades of Football.