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Writers' Chat: Western Sydney Wanderers vs FC Seoul

FC Seoul's chances of advancing in the ACL are down to strictly mathematical as they travel to Australia to play the return fixture at Western Sydney Wanderers. Nothing but a win will keep those hopes alive for Seoul, but a suddenly resurgent Wanderers side have ACL ambitions of their own. SBS - The World Game and FourFourTwo contributor Paul Williams joins us again to discuss how the Aussies have climbed the league table and what another win vs Seoul may mean in ACL.
(header images via espnfc.com and sports-g.com)

Ryan Asks, Paul Answers

Ryan Walters: Since we last spoke, Wanderers have been on an absolute tear. Not only have they won three in a row, but they've outscored their opponents by a combined 9-2 with three goals in each match during the stretch. What changed to ignite the previously sputtering Sydney attack?

Paul Williams: They’ve been able to get a stable midfield combination with Terry Antonis and Kearyn Baccus, which has helped settle them down and has provided some class that was missing previously. That has allowed Nichols and Nico Martínez to play further forward and provide the service that Brendon Santalab thrives on, and the form he is in at the moment means if he’s given chances he’ll get on the scoresheet.

RW: Age absolutely hasn't slowed down 34-year-old striker Brendon Santalab. He bagged a brace vs Wellington mid-March, then followed it up with his first ever A League hat trick vs 3rd place Melbourne City the next week. How concerned should Seoul be about him and how do you think the defense can shut him down?

PW: He’s their main threat without a doubt, the only worry for the Wanderers is he is really their only threat. It’s been shown this season that teams that can take Santalab out of the game make it much more difficult for Western Sydney. As I said earlier, he thrives on good service, so they key is locking down on Nichols and Martínez. If you can nullify their influence and cut the supply you’re half way there. But like all good strikers he only needs half a chance and is a real poacher in the box, so the FC Seoul defence need to be disciplined to shut him out of the game.

RW: Given their resurgence and the fact they're just three points behind Urawa in the Group F table, are Western Sydney suddenly poised for a deep run in ACL?

PW: To be honest I can’t see it. Urawa and Shanghai are the two best teams in this group and are the two that deserve to progress to the Round of 16. Of course anything is possible, but with an away trip to Saitama still to come I think it will be too much for Western Sydney.

RW: With just two matches left in the A League regular season a win vs Melbourne Victory this Sunday would officially secure Wanderers a spot in the Final Series Playoff. However, they'll host Seoul in ACL just three days later. How do you see manager Tony Popović rotating the squad and which match do you think he'll prioritize?

PW: If Popović is known for one thing it’s squad rotation. He played a pretty much full strength side against Melbourne Victory on Saturday night, in a match that ended 0-0, so that might give some indication as to where his priority is at the moment. I expect he’ll make some changes, so we might see the likes of Lachlan Scott, Aritz Borda and Dimas come into the side.

RW: Score prediction?

PW: I think a lot depends on what side Popovic puts out there, if he rotates heavily as he has shown he is likely to do, then that could give FC Seoul a sniff. I’m leaning towards a Wanderers win though based on form, so I’ll say 1-0.

Paul Asks, Ryan Answers

Paul Williams: It’s been a shocking start to the season for FC Seoul, how do they turn it around? What is missing?

RW: On paper things aren't quite as bad as the team's form on the field might suggest. They only have one loss in league play and are still in the top five despite a shaky goalkeeper, occasionally aloof defense, and an offense that has been utterly bereft of ideas. In regards to what's missing, the short answer is Yojiro Takahagi. The man was an absolute beast last season consistently doing the dirty work both offensively and defensively. He may not have had his name on the scoresheet very often last year, but make no mistake, he was the engine that made this team run. In his absence, manager Hwang Sun-hong has almost completely bypassed the midfield by consistently lining up in a 3-4-3 formation that overly relies on wing backs shuttling the ball up field, or simply lobbing it to the forwards and hoping for the best. The two central midfielders have been relegated to simply being a shield for the defense and often haven't looked sure of their role.

Maybe the only good thing to come out of the lifeless 0-0 draw vs Jeju on Saturday was finally seeing Dejan and Park Chu-young start the match together and go nearly the full 90. Hwang stuck to his usual three man attacking line, so Park was pushed into a slightly less than ideal role out wide, but the two still managed to combine for two of Seoul's only real chances in the match. Hopefully the manager will stop his striker rotation and play the best players available to him and see if they can finally unlock this offense.

PW: Goals, where are they going to come from? Does it all rest with Dejan and Park?

RW: At the moment... yes. Yun Il-lok has showed his age this year and has been incredibly streaky on the wing. He shows flashes of brilliance, but follows them up with absurd decisions or just coughs the ball up. On the opposite wing, new addition Maurinho had a strong showing against Jeju on Saturday and is consistently good on the ball. However, much like Yun and the third wing option, Lee Sang-ho, Maurinho isn't much of a threat on goal. All three wings can move the ball relatively well and make great runs, but not one of them has proven to be a threat of scoring at any time. Add in the fact that Hwang has rarely played Dejan and Park at the same time, and the defensive game plan is amazingly simple. Stop the one guy out there that might be able to score a goal. Should Dejan and Park get more playing time together and put the ball in the back of the net, it should open up space for some of the wingers to take more shots, or possibly some of the midfielders to get in on the action.

PW: FC Seoul’s defence has been poor at times this season, especially against Urawa and FC Seoul. Have they fixed up that area of the park?

RW: Kind of? Again, I think a lot of this goes back to playing the 3-4-3 when the team isn't really set up for it. Kim Chi-woo can be a solid leftback with an ability to make an overlapping run up the wing if he's played in that position. However, when he's deployed as a wingback – as he's been most of the season in the 3-4-3 – his offensive leaning shows through too much and he doesn't track back as much nor as well as he needs to. As a result the team has to shift to cover the ground and the middle of the field is left open. Additionally, the team is still relying on Yoo Hyun in net, and it feels like a time bomb waiting to go off every week. Unfortunately back up options aren't overly encouraging at the moment, so he'll likely stay between the sticks until the next transfer window opens. Playing four at the back may help both issues.

PW: Is there any pressure on Hwang Sun-hong coming into this game? After last season fans can’t be happy with this start to the season.

RW: He had the team in serious contention for three trophies last year and brought one home, so I think that alone will buy him a bit more time. And again, on paper the team isn't doing too poorly in the league, and that may be as far as the brass upstairs digs into the situation. That said, if the team continues to play as poorly as they have, it's only a matter of time before the results start matching the product on the field and losses start piling up. If he continues to stubbornly stick to formations and tactics that clearly aren't working, then he should be on the hot seat by summer.

PW: Prediction?

RW: I still just don't know where the goals are going to come from on this team, so I can't say I see them picking up a road win. Or even finding the back of the net. Seoul's struggling of late, the ACL table is nearly hopeless, and WSW are on a hot streak. Add all of those up and you should have a relatively easy win for the hosts.

Western Sydney Wanderers 2-0 FC Seoul

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