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Writer's Chat: Kawasaki Frontale vs Suwon Bluewings Preview

After what seemed like an endless pre-season, Suwon Bluewings finally begin their 2017 campaign on Wednesday night as they head over the East Sea to face Kawasaki Frontale. Here, our resident Suwon columnist, Scott Whitelock, is joined by Frontale Rabbit blogger Neil Debnam.
(images via facebook.com/SuwonSamsungFC and sportiva.shueisha.co.jp)
Scott Asks, Neil Answers

Scott: Despite being one of the more consistent performers in Japan over recent years, Kawasaki have a relatively low profile in Korea. What can Suwon expect to face when they lineup against them on this coming Wednesday night?

Neil: Actually, I’d say we have a kind of low profile here too. We have a reputation as being perennial ‘silver collectors’, not quite having enough to win the last game to take a title and this lack of titles means that we are still not one of the big teams in the eyes of many people. Last season we were surprisingly inconsistent for a team that spent such a long time at the top of the table. We tended to lose against poor teams and that really cost us. We also threw away a couple of crucial games from really good positions. I’d hope that the ACL would bring out the best in us, but to be honest, it’s really a toss up, as we always surprise (in a good and a bad way). Generally speaking, we are a pretty attacking team and we pass the ball around nicely, although often not really going anywhere for a while. I’m looking forward to seeing how our remodeled squad plays this year, but I imagine it will be pretty similar to last year, with the main aim being scoring plenty and conceding at the most one less than we score.

Scott: Who is the midfield maestro, who makes the team tick, and who is the most frightening attacker that Suwon should be looking to guard against?

Neil: This question should be simpler for me to answer, but given that we have a new coach and lost our ‘star striker’ at the end of last season, (who to be honest, massively under performed last year, so I wasn’t upset to see him go), maybe it’s not so simple after all.

Last year I would have said, Nakamura Kengo, our talisman midfielder and captain, who started the season a bit off the pace, but soon got up to speed and ended up as the J League player of the season, defying his advancing years. However, he has given up the captaincy, so maybe he’s not so confident he’ll be playing so much this season. Maybe he feels his age is catching up with him. The new captain Kobayashi Yu could be one to watch. Capped a few times for Japan last year and scored as many goals as the now departed Okubo but with less time on the pitch, he apparently turned down some big offers from big J League teams to stay with us in the hope of us taking our first title. He seems to need to miss a few chances before he can score a goal, but he’s a high energy player who gets and makes plenty of these chances, so I have my fingers crossed for him. Elsinho, one of our Brazilians, plays on the wing and always causes the opposition trouble, so he’ll be one to watch too. As will be new signing Ienaga Akihiro and up and coming talent and Asian U19 championship winner Miyoshi Koji. But given the new coach and it being the first game of the season, we don’t really know what the team will be.

Scott: After, perhaps, being the most consistent team in the J1 League last season, finishing in the top 2 in both stages of the season, how frustrating was it for Kawasaki to lose against Kashima in the first stage of the 2016 Championship round?

Neil: To say it was frustrating is a huge understatement. Although the writing was on the wall a few times throughout the season. We threw away the first stage by drawing away at Fukuoka, a team who went down, bottom of the table. It was probably at this stage when a couple of thousand of us had flown to the away game that the doubts first started setting in. We also managed to throw away the overall first position which would have taken us straight to the playoff final. We were 2-0 up at half time and conceded three times in the second half. After these kind of games, it wasn’t really that surprising that we bowed out of the Championship at the first stage.

It was another one of the lackluster performances that haunted us last year. It was pretty devastating, but we had seen the warning signs. It was particularly frustrating though to lose to Kashima who had performed so terribly in the second half of the season. But their eventual victory did make the whole Championship play off system look totally stupid and now it’s gone, which is a silver lining to what was a very grey cloud.

Scott: What are your predictions for this game? If Kawasaki are to defeat Suwon, what should they look to do?

Neil: As I said above, it’s the first game of the season for us so I think the fans and players will be up for it. And hopefully this also means that we will be injury free. We were blighted by key players being injured at crucial times last season. Given that it’s the first game, I can see it being a draw. I don’t think anyone wants to lose the first game of the group. I’m sure we’ll attack and I can see us scoring a couple, but I think if we want to win, it’s the defence that will be crucial. I imagine Sung-Ryong will want to impress against his old team so I’m hoping he’ll have a blinder, but whoever plays directly in front of him will be crucial too. And of course our new manager will be important. His team selection and formation might give us some pointers towards how the season will go. It’s his first managerial job, being promoted from assistant at the end of last season, so we’ll have to hope he hits the ground running and can keep what was best about us last year (beautiful, exciting, attacking football), whilst eliminating some of the baffling substitutions and tactics we had at times and stop us falling asleep at the back once every game or so.

Neil's Prediction: an entertaining 2-2 leaving most people at least slightly happy

Neil Asks, Scott Answers

Neil: I saw you predicted the treble for Suwon this year. As I'm close to clueless about Korean football, can you clarify whether this was a realistic prospect or the the kind of wonderful optimism that pre-season can bring?

Scott: I'm afraid to say that that was all just twitter bravado and was said with my tongue firmly in my cheek. No team has ever claimed a Korean league and cup double, with continental honours in the same season and only the Seongnam team of 1995 has ever come close, winning the Kleague and ACL, but losing in the League Cup final that year. Asian football has evolved since then and it is doubtful whether any team could ever reproduce what that special Seongnam team did. A very talented Jeonbuk side tried, and failed, to recreate that last year and their end of season struggles would serve as a cautionary tale for any manager that targets a treble.

Suwon have dealt well in this winter transfer window and have built a squad that is capable of an upset, but just reaching the latter stages of the ACL would be deemed as an achievement for a team that struggled for much of last season.

Neil: Where would you say the strengths lie in the Suwon team? Are you a young team with players on the way up or a more experienced team with canny ACL veterans? And will our ex-Suwon keeper get a good reception from the fans?

Scott: I wouldn't exactly describe the squad as young, but a number of veterans were moved on after the end of last season and that has significantly altered the average age of the squad. The starting 11 is made up mostly of young players with the addition of Kleague and ACL veterans Yeom Ki-hun and Lee Jung-soo.

Suwon's strength most definitely lies in it's talented midfield and attack, whilst in recent seasons they have struggled in defence. In midfield, Yeom Ki-hun is the chief creator and architect and he is one of the more technically gifted players that Korea has produced in recent years. A former ACL winner with Jeonbuk and the Kleague's all time leading assist maker, Yeom Ki-hun is a left-winger with a wand of a left-foot. He can provide pin-point crosses from open play and set play situations, and he is also deadly if given a chance to shoot around the penalty area. If Yeom Ki-hun plays well it usually means that Suwon play well and the captain is instrumental in everything that Suwon do.

Jleague fans may also be familiar with the name Kim Min-woo. The Korean returned to his native country this winter after playing and captaining Sagan Tosu in Japan as he went on to make almost 200 appearances for the club. He has been playing pre-season slightly out of position as a left wing-back, but has impressed enough people in the warm up games that he is now deemed vital to this year's cause. 

Up front Suwon have a very talented Brazilian who had a successful debut season with the club in 2016, scoring 14 goals in just half a season, after arriving late on in the summer transfer window. Johnathan is a natural goal poacher and he doesn't contribute a lot to open play. His goals are usually instinctive, one touch finishes and he isn't the type of player who will drive at defences with the ball at his feet. He is exceptionally good at converting the chances he gets and the Kawasaki defence will not be able to switch off for a second while Johnathan is around.

As for Jung Sung-ryong, he will receive a very warm welcome from the Suwon supporters as he is somewhat of a minor legend at the club. He is well missed at the club and the supporters still occasionally chant his name. It was sad to see him drop out of the national team last year and I hope he can regain his form this year, although, not in any game against Suwon.

Neil: Is the ACL a distraction or a focus for the team and the fans? I can't quite decide how I feel about it. Do you think Suwon will bring many fans to this game?

Scott: Korean fans generally struggle to attend ACL games and some of the attendances for the games last year were quite frankly an embarrassing advertisement for the Korean league. However, Suwon fans generally travel in numbers for away games in Japan and just over 500 made it away to their game against Gamba Osaka last season.

Korean teams love playing in the ACL and as we have produced the most winners of the competition (Korean teams have won the ACL on 11 occasions) we have a long tradition that we would like to continue. Suwon will undoubtedly field their strongest 11 in the group games and will be looking to progress to the knockout stages as group winners. Suwon were lucky to get their shot at the ACL as they only qualified after a strong late season run saw them lift the 2016 Korean FA Cup. For much of last year it looked like Suwon wouldn't be competing in continental competition in 2017 so it is a headache that is much appreciated and valued.

Neil: I saw you're also a Barnsley fan. I'm a Leyton Orient fan. Can you think of an English team that you'd compare Suwon to with regards to style and ability? We are an attacking team in a pretty cavalier fashion and was wondering whether we're in for an exciting game or one where we'll do all the attacking and you'll pick us off on the break and win 3-0.

This is a very difficult question to answer, but I would liken us most to teams like Liverpool or Leeds United. Suwon are a traditional giant of Korean and Asian football but have spent a long time out of the limelight due to a lack of silverware. We are, as you might say, a sleeping giant. Similar to Liverpool (less so dirty Leeds) the club has a huge and passionate support base that demands attacking and entertaining football.

I wouldn't expect this to be a defensive game and there will be opportunities for both teams. But Suwon may just temper their gung-ho approach a little and try to retain possession a little more than they might usually do. I expect the midfield to try and dominate and hopefully Johnathan can put away any chances that come his way.

Scott's Prediction: Kawasaki 1 - 2 Suwon

Many thanks goes to Neil for his help on this article. Neil runs a detailed blog dedicated to Kawasaki Frontale news and match reports. 

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