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Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Kawasaki Frontale

A fresh round of ACL fixtures brings with it an opportunity for both Suwon Bluewings and Kawasaki Frontale to take their minds off their domestic woes and focus on continental competition. Suwon, with one foot in the knockout stages of the competition, will be looking to secure the draw they need to progress, whilst Kawasaki surely must win this game to stand any chance of prolonging their stay in the competition. Here, our regular Suwon columnist, Scott Whitelock, chats with Kawasaki expert, Neil Debnam.

First, Scott asks and Neil answers:

Scott: Kawasaki have struggled in the ACL thus far this season, with 4 draws to their name and only scoring 3 goals in the process. How would you assess their performance in Group G?

Neil: In a word, disappointing. Although the league form, or more accurately the results, are a bit more disappointing to be honest. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the ACL and the first game against Suwon seemed a decent result. The Hong Kong debacle maybe set the tone for this season. I’m no expert on refereeing, but I’d say I am well experienced in moaning about them. The early red card was a total travesty. We really still should have had enough to come back against a very average Eastern team whose one tactic was to knock it long to the guy who can run fast. The away draw at Guangzhou seemed to be a decent result too and we totally bossed them for the second half, but as you alluded to above, we haven’t quite been clicking up front so couldn’t take full advantage. Home against Guangzhou wasn’t the most exciting game and whilst we kept up the tradition of ACL draws, we made it less exciting by getting a 0-0 instead of the usual 1-1. It’s all still in our hands, but I don’t think we can be too hopeful given the previous results and the way we’re playing at the moment.

Scott: Despite only scoring 3 goals in the competition, Kawasaki have looked dangerous when playing fast paced, one touch football. As the stats suggest, have the midfield played well and have just been let down by the forward players?

Neil: Our ACL performances have pretty much mirrored our league games and it’s really difficult for me to work out what’s going wrong. Like you said, we’re playing some nice stuff but seem determined to keep passing until the perfect shooting opportunity arises. Most of the time it doesn’t so we’re not scoring. The new manager is still trying to find the right combination, a little tinkering taking place pretty much every game with little change in the overall performance. Also, we are have a ridiculous amount of injuries for this stage of the season and to some key players.

Our new star forward Ienaga has only played a couple of games, Elsinho is still out so we are missing his attacking drive. But it’s a bit of a mystery why things aren’t clicking more. We look a bit more solid at the back than last year, but seem to have lost the ability to shoot anywhere other than directly at the keeper or wide of the goal. I don’t think the blame lies only with the forwards. Last year plenty of our goals came from elsewhere but it seems that no-one can shoot at the moment. I think we’re a work in progress, but fear any progress may come too late for the ACL.

Scott: It appears that Kawasaki realistically need to win this game to keep their ACL aspirations alive. If they draw or even lose this game, do you think it would be all over for the Japanese team?

Neil: I think so. I’m not sure how long we can keep thinking to ourselves, ‘well, that wasn’t too bad, let’s step it up a gear in the next game’. Perhaps the fact that we’re running out of games will influence the team selection or performance, but I agree, if we don’t win at Suwon it’s curtains for us really.

It would however be classically Frontal-esque if we got another draw and went in to the last game needing a miracle and then fell one goal short of it. I’m not so confident that we’d be able to score many, if any at all, against Eastern at the moment though. A Frontale win would set up quite an interesting end for the group and as I’d like to see our two teams going through, I would be pleased if somehow that could happen.

Scott: What is your prediction for this game?

Neil: Last time I went for a draw and given that we’ve drawn pretty much every game this year it seems like it would be stupid to say anything other than 1-1. But, realistically, we do have to win so will be putting our all into the game to try to keep our hopes alive. So… 1-1.

Now, Neil asks and Scott answers:

Neil: How do you think our group has been? Have any of the teams surprised you in a good or bad way?

Scott: The group has gone accordingly to plan, but I never expected that going into round 5 Suwon would sit comfortably atop of their group. Especially when you consider Suwon's recent domestic form, it is a minor miracle that they have been able to perform so well in the ACL.

Of course, part of the reason for this has been Kawasaki's surprising run of draws in the competition. At the beginning of the competition I had expected that both Suwon and Kawasaki would be fighting it out for 2nd spot in Group G, but Kawasaki's profligacy in front of goal has resulted in them clinging onto their ACL lives by the tip of their fingers. A victory for Guangzhou over struggling Eastern, and a draw in Suwon on Tuesday night would seal Kawasaki's fate and secure a place in the next round for the Korean and Chinese teams.

I wouldn't have expected the group to be done and dusted after only 5 rounds of football, but the form book suggests that is what may happen come midnight on Tuesday.

Neil: I saw your tweets about one of your players leaving the club after his response to criticism from the fans and the troubles that your manager is currently having. Is it a time of crisis? And how would you like to see things changed? 

Scott: Suwon has been a club in crisis for the best part of a year now. Last season was a major disappointment, which was salvaged on the final day of the season with the club winning the 2016 Korean FA Cup. And the team has continued their struggles into this season. Until their victory at the weekend, in the mountains of Gangwon-do, they were yet to record a victory in the league and were having serious problems in attack, having only scored a measly 5 goals from 6 games.

However, they are now 8 games unbeaten, and back-to-back victories last week have gone some way to easing the pressure on the manager. The ACL has been a happy hunting ground for Suwon this year, and with a tough weekend fixture against a strong Jeju team coming up, this fixture is a great distraction for Suwon and a good opportunity to extend that unbeaten record.

Personally, I am still not sure the manager has the ability to lead these players and my preference would be for him to leave sooner rather than later. But he is rightly deemed a legend at the club, being the record goalscorer, while also winning trophies as a player and manager, and the supporters will continue to lend their support to him for as long as he is in the role.

Neil: Pre-season I think we were both cautiously optimistic about our teams’ prospects for the season. Would you like to revise your pre-season prediction and how do you think you’re progressing so far?

Scott: I did expect Suwon to challenge on all fronts this season, and I still haven't abandoned that hope, although my enthusiasm has been tempered somewhat. Their slow start see's them already trailing Jeonbuk, who are top of the table, by 9 points. Moreover, despite having improved their defensive record this season, they have lost their edge in attack and are struggling to create enough chances in games. Much like their bitter rivals, FC Seoul, who are also struggling, Suwon cannot expect to challenge for any silverware if they simply aren't scoring goals.

But, the sheer quality in the squad still leaves me with some hope that they could turn things around. Their performance against a dangerous Gangwon team at the weekend was a decent start to the turnaround that must be produced, and the team looked much more dangerous, creating a number of goalscoring opportunities.

With 3 quarters of the season remaining, 9 points isn't that huge of a points gap to make up, Suwon are almost through to the next stage of the ACL, and they are still in the hat for the FA Cup, so not all hope is lost. But if Suwon are to claim at least one of those prizes this season, then they need to improve, and they need to do it starting now. And 2 victories over Kawasaki and Jeju, this week, would be the perfect way to start.

We would like to extend our thanks to Neil for collaborating on this piece. Neil is an avid follower of Japanese football and you can view his blog here or follow him on twitter here. 

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