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Writer's Chat: FC Seoul v Shanghai SIPG Preview

FC Seoul will kick off their 2017 AFC Champions League campaign against the Chinese Super League's biggest names when Brazilian duo Oscar and Hulk come to Seoul World Cup Stadium Tuesday night. To get a bit of insight on how the stars are settling at their new club and what to expect from SIPG this year, I spoke with Football Radar's CSL analyst Yixin Li.
(images via facebook.com/fcseoul and chinadailyasia.com)

Ryan Asks, Yixin Answers

Ryan Walters: In what’s becoming the norm, it’s impossible to talk about Shanghai SIPG without talking about their recent star signing. This time it’s 25-year-old Brazilian Oscar who cost the team €60 million (₩72 billion) in a transfer from Chelsea. He looked solid in his debut vs Thailand’s Sukhothai, but he’ll be facing much tougher competition in what has to be considered this year’s Group of Death with FC Seoul, Urawa Red Diamonds, and Western Sydney Wanderers. How do you think he’ll adjust to facing Asia’s elite teams and how much is SIPG depending on him to carry the load?

Yixin Li: Oscar's arrival topped the CSL transfer list at a whopping €60m. What's good for him is that fellow Brazilian Hulk & Elkeson will help him to adapt to Chinese football and the culture quickly. However, the Chelsea bond between him and manager André Villas-Boas and Carvalho won’t help much as both left the Blues before Oscar joined Chelsea in 2012. Oscar is a talented all-round midfielder, but more like a defensive attacking mid in Mourinho’s Chelsea with excellent coverage on the pitch. He has big shoes to fill in this SIPG squad after playmaker Darío Conca's departure. I hope he takes more attacking responsibility and shows the best of himself, which he was never really able to exploit in Chelsea. He did score the 1-on-1 goal last week, but remember Sukhothai is a much weaker team compared to the group stage teams. His rich experiences in the EPL, UEFA Champions League, and the World Cup will help him adjust to the ACL's Group of Death, but personally I don’t think SIPG should depend on him solely to get out of this group. Chemistry between the Brazilian trio and the other new signing, Odil Ahmedov, is the key for SIPG’s second ACL trip.

RW: While casual (and even non-CSL) fans will certainly know Oscar and Hulk, who’s an “under the radar” player on SIPG who may surprise fans?

YL: Uzbekistan international central midfielder and captain Odil Akhmedov. He’s the ‘Xabi Alonso’ in the Uzbekistan National Team and SIPG did a fantastic job in securing him. He looked good in his debut vs Sukhothai, but occasionally lost possession in SIPG’s own half and that could be lethal against better teams like Seoul or Urawa. Wu Lei is no doubt the best Chinese player on the team, but I would want to mention Fu Huan. The young RB did a fantastic job last year, and his improvement has given SIPG more choices to play versatile defender Wang Shenchao in other positions.

RW: With so much star power focused on scoring the goals, what’s SIPG’s strategy at the back? What formation have they been lining up in most frequently and how do you think they’ll go about trying to stop Seoul specifically?

YL: I don’t think there will be any changes from the Sukhothai playoff game. SIPG has been playing 4-2-3-1 since last year and that is no doubt the formation they will go for. However, they may play a bit more defensively since this is an away game. Compared to last year's ACL squad, the back four looks different. South Korean defender Kim Ju-young has been replaced with 24-year-old Chinese defender He Guan who didn’t experience much trouble against Sukhothai last week. He Guan only started 8 games at CB last year and his lack of experience in ACL could be an issue for SIPG, especially against strikers like Dejan who knows Chinese football really well.

RW: In their last trip to South Korea, Shanghai were shut out and utterly embarrassed by the eventual 2016 Champions Jeonbuk to the tune of 5-0. Obviously Seoul is a different squad, but how much will revenge against K League be on SIPG’s mind Tuesday night? Do you think they’re viewing this as something of a statement game?

YL: There is no need to motivate domestic players for a match between Chinese and South Korean teams. Korea's 3-2 win in World Cup Qualifying last September was a perfect example. ‘Koreaphobia’ could still be in some Chinese players minds, but that’s more at the international level than club level games, so I think SIPG's mentally should be fine. They made an excellent ACL debut and reached the quarter final last year. Going into this first group-stage game, I expect them to be more concentrated on defense to avoid any heavy defeat which would hugely affect their confidence in the beginning of the season.

RW: Score Prediction?

YL: SIPG had a fantastic pre-season and players have been working hard. Tactically there is still much to work on, but in terms of physical fitness, unlike Shanghai Shenhua, they are ready. If SIPG play smart and resilient, a point in Seoul World Cup Stadium is not difficult.

I will go for Seoul 2-2 SIPG.

Yixin Asks, Ryan Answers

Yixin Li: Seoul had twice reached the ACL final in 2002 & 2013. Last season they almost won their second domestic double in their club history, but unfortunately lost the FA Cup to Suwon on penalties. A great atmosphere seems to surround the club. What’s Seoul’s target this year, and could an aging Dejan Damjanović still provide enough attacking power they need?

Ryan Walters: Coming off their 2016 K League championship, it would only make sense for Seoul to prioritize the ACL this year. They've won the league a remarkable six times and while defending the title will certainly be a matter of pride, the financial difference of winning the ACL is astounding. Last year Seoul took home ₩500m (roughly $435,000) for winning K League. It's not nothing, but it's a far cry from the $3 million K League rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors took home for winning the Champions League just a few weeks later. Having won the FA Cup in 2015 and K League in 2016, the ACL is the next step for Seoul to confirm their place among Asia's elite clubs. That said, you hit on the biggest question on whether they can: where are the goals going to come from? With last year's ACL leading scorer Adriano off to second division Chinese side Shijiazhuang Ever Bright, there is a gaping hole up top that's certainly too big for Dejan to fill on his own. Seoul haven't made any blockbuster signings up top this winter, so the team seems confident former Arsenal striker Park Chu-young is due for the breakout year so many Korean fans have been yearning for since his return to the league. If he's not, then this ACL campaign may be over quite quickly for Seoul given the ferociously difficult group they find themselves in.

YL: Seoul signed Lee Sang-ho from arch rival Suwon Bluewings, can you introduce him a bit and how he could fit in this Squad. 

RW: It will take quite a while for Lee to ingratiate himself to FC Seoul's fanbase after years playing for their rival and some combative social media posts in the past stoked the flames of the Super Match. Some of those critics may have been silenced a bit when he scored in Seoul's preseason match against fellow Group F rivals Urawa Red Diamonds... but likely not many. For now, as Paul Carver of 48 Shades of Football put it "he might have scored a goal, but he's still not a Seoul player." It may take time, but those feelings will likely fade if Lee can produce on the field. He has the ability to play as an attacking mid or a winger, and that versatility should serve him well. To start with, I'd expect him to be played on the opposite wing of fellow newcomer Maurinho in a 4-4-2 similar to what Seoul used towards the end of last year. Look for Lee to frequently drift inside to clean up any of Dejan's rebounds at the top of the box.

YL: How's Seoul’s preseason and in what aspect(s) do you feel Seoul could punish Shanghai SIPG in this particular matchup?

RW: Well... it hasn't been pretty. The aforementioned goal Lee scored was the only one Seoul has tallied this winter. Prior to their 1-1 draw with Urawa, Seoul were shut out 1-0 by both Auckland City and fellow ACL participant Muangthong United at the Lunar New Year Cup in Hong Kong.  Not to take anything away from Auckland or Muangthong, but these are certainly teams that are below the pedigree K League Champions should be playing at, even in the late days of January when the rust of offseason has yet to be shaken. Losing to "smaller" teams in preseason doesn't really carry any weight, and ultimately means very little, but what's concerning is the lack of production or ideas up top. In their opener vs Auckland, Seoul didn't even make much of a push until late in the game and by then it was too little too late. Offensively very little has been figured out nor assured heading into ACL.

When it comes to "punishing" Shanghai, Seoul will be looking to newly minted captain Kwak Tae-hwi. The 35-year-old Korean international absolutely stonewalled Shandong Luneng's Graziano Pellè in last year's ACL quarterfinal and will be tasked with doing the same against Oscar and company this Tuesday. Kwak has been an absolute force at the back for Seoul since his return to Korea from Al Hilal and has paired well with former captain Osmar to shut down the center of the pitch. Whether in CSL or the early stages of ACL, Shanghai certainly haven't come across defenders of this ilk and are likely to be a bit more frustrated than they're used to this early in the year. With the wealth of attacking talent on SIPG, they'll get their chances, but it won't be anywhere near the number they're used to.

YL: And at last a cheeky score prediction would be great.

RW: I'd love to predict a Seoul win to see K League get off to a strong start in the competition, but until they show they can score goals I don't think a victory is in the cards.

FC Seoul 1-1 Shanghai SIPG

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