Writers Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Guangzhou Evergrande
James Porteous, a sports journalist for the South China Morning Post.
Scott Asks, James Answers
Scott: After a period of dominance in continental competition, Guangzhou had a disastrous 2016 ACL campaign exiting at the group stage. What went wrong last year and how has the squad adapted since then?
James: Many pointed to the surprise sale of Brazilian striker Elkeson to rivals Shanghai SIPG as a big part of the problem, as big-money signing Jackson Martinez never really fired. The team got off to a dire start, taking only two points from their first three games against Pohang Steelers (draw), Sydney (loss) and Urawa Red Diamonds (draw). Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari blamed the team’s participation in the Club World Cup, saying it denied them a proper pre-season. There may be some truth in that, but the jury is certainly out on Scolari. He was set to be replaced by former Guangzhou manager Marcello Lippi but Guangzhou allowed him to take the reins of the China national team instead. There seems little doubt that Scolari needs to impress in the Champions League this season to keep his job, with many taking the Chinese Super League title as a given (Guangzhou have won it six seasons in a row).
As for what has changed … not a great deal. Guangzhou didn’t make any major signings in the winter transfer window. Martinez has been left out of the Champions League squad this time for Brazilian winger Alan, but otherwise the squad is not hugely different.
Scott: Guangzhou got off to a flying start in the 1st round of group games hammering Hong Kong's Eastern SC 7-0. Was that scoreline a fair reflection of Guangzhou's quality or were Eastern just that bad?
James: Eastern were reduced to 10 men after just three minutes, conceding a penalty, and nine with about an hour still to play, so it was impossible to make a fair judgement. Even Scolari told Eastern coach Chan Yuen-ting “you can’t take that game seriously”. The second half was basically a training exercise, Guangzhou playing 2-4-4 and carving open Eastern pretty much at will. All three big-money Brazilians – Alan, Goulart and Paulinho – got on the scoresheet though and there were two goals each for Liao Lisheng and Wang Shangyuang, so their confidence should have taken a boost.
Scott: I think most of the world knows about Guangzhou's big name foreign stars, but who are the best of the Chinese contingent in the squad and who should Suwon fear?
James: Gao Lin is one of the few impressive Chinese forwards in a league where foreigners make most of the attacking talent. Midfielder Zheng Zhi is captain of Guangzhou and China and has huge experience and keeps the ball ticking over from defence to attack. Zhang Linpeng is a quality defender who has been linked with moves to Europe in the past.
Scott: What is your prediction for this game? How can Guangzhou hurt Suwon and what weaknesses can Suwon look to exploit?
James: I haven’t watched much of Suwon, I must confess so it’s difficult for me to say fairly how they compare to Guangzhou or give any great tactical insight into how Scolari might approach them. Guangzhou’s three Brazilians can hurt any team in Asia on their day (although Alan was terrifically wasteful against Eastern). Goulart has shown he can score against anyone in Asia and Paulinho will look to pull the strings from midfield. I would imagine Guangzhou might look to keep it tight as they’re still finding their feet in the new season and are away from home, and might be content with a draw, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they come away with the win
James Asks, Scott Answers
James: How do Suwon rate in general over recent years in the K League?
Scott: Suwon have had a barren few years in terms of winning trophies but are always involved in the upper echelons of the Korean pyramid. However, after back-to-back 2nd place finishes in 2014 and 2015, 2016 was a disaster of a season, with the team flirting with relegation throughout the year. Only a run of form towards the end of the season saw them escape an unthinkable relegation and also ensure that the club claimed it's first piece of silverware for 6 years as they won the FA Cup after a superb victory in the final over FC Seoul.
There is much more hope around Suwon this year after a solid winter transfer window saw them improve what was already a talented squad.
James: What did we learn from Suwon's Champions League opener?
Scott: We learned that the defensive frailties that characterized much of last season still remain within the team. The back 3 looked shaky and the team was especially weak in the centre of midfield. Kawasaki persistently troubled the midfield pairing of Lee Yong-rae and Lee Jong-sung, and the latter especially could not deal with Kawasaki's slick passing and movement.
Seo Jung-won's emission of new signing Matthew Jurman was also puzzling. The strong centre-back had had a successful pre-season and looked set to the start the new season in the starting lineup, but the manager handed that starting role to Yang Sang-min, who did not look confident and made a couple of errors which on another day may have been more severely punished.
Suwon also played a much more direct game than they have in recent seasons. Suwon are noted for their stylish brand of passing football, but that was not on display in Kawasaki as the team looked to feed the front 3 as quickly as possible. The direct tactics utilised didn't quite go to plan as too many long passes went loose and the midfield struggled to support Johnathan and Santos at the attacking end of the pitch.
Although a point away from home in the ACL is not a bad return, it felt like more of a missed opportunity for Suwon. Kawasaki appear to be a good team with the ball but were fragile without it and if Suwon had been a little better prepared they might have returned from Japan with all 3 points in hand.
James: Who are Suwon's key players? And what about the manager?
Scott: Very briefly, Suwon's key players are undoubtedly the captain, Yeom Ki-hun, the Brazilian striker, Johnathan, and the experienced defender, Lee Jung-soo. Yeom Ki-hun is the leading assist maker in Kleague history and has a beautiful left foot. Almost everything flows through Ki-hun and he is instrumental to the team. While Johnathan is less instrumental, he is invaluable to the team. The forward isn't involved in general play a lot, but when the striker is given a chance to score he rarely misses. His 14 goals last season were the catalyst for the club to avoid relegation and end the season as FA Cup winners.
Seo Jung-won, the manager, is a Suwon legend having played for the club between 1999 and 2004. During his time with the club he won almost every trophy that was on offer and was given the mantle 'King Seo'. After taking managerial control in 2013, he has been relatively successful, steering the club to two 2nd place finishes in the league whilst the operating budget of the club was severely slashed. Last season saw him make a number of mistakes, but to his credit, he has admitted his mistakes publicly and has met with supporters to apologise for the failings of last season. The hope is that the manager can move on from those mistakes and steer the club towards it's first Kleague title since 2008.
James: Likewise, what is your prediction, and how you expect the tactical battle to be won?
I can see this game being quite a tense game with a lot of midfield action, and not many chances for each team. With both teams getting off to good starts, neither team will want to sacrifice that and go gung-ho in search of 3 points.
While the Chinese teams in the ACL have the big name foreign stars that can frighten defences and win games, the opening round of ACL fixtures certainly showed us that Korean players are still superior to their Chinese counterparts and Chinese football still has some way to go to catch up with the rest of East Asia. If Guangzhou's 3 Brazilians have an off night then it is not inconceivable that Suwon can win. They have their own firepower and if they can utilise the front 3 well it could be a famous night for Suwon.
Predicted Score: Suwon 1 - 1 Guangzhou
We thank James for joining us on this preview and offering us his insight on Chinese football. James, a sports journalist for more than 10 years, first in Scotland now in Hong Kong, has covered football at every level from cup ties featuring amateur teams to the Champions League final. If you would like to read more of his articles you can visit the South China Morning Post here.