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ACL Preview: FC Seoul vs Urawa Red Diamonds

After some truly frustrating and occasionally embarrassing matches, FC Seoul's 2017 AFC Champions League campaign will officially come to a close with the final whistle Wednesday night when they host J League title contenders Urawa. A win, and nothing but a win, will see the Reds advance to the knockout round as the victors of a rather disappointing "Group of Death." Can Seoul play spoiler or will their ACL nightmare continue for another 90 minutes?
(image via goal.com)

Overview

(form through all competitions via soccerway.com)

And Now Their Watch Has Ended

After coming within one game of the Final last year, Seoul have shown themselves the door in this year's ACL before the close of the group stage. The capital club are tied with Western Sydney Wanderers with just one win and are nine points adrift of both Urawa Red Diamonds and Shanghai SIPG in Group F. A gap large enough to ensure the Japanese and Chinese teams a spot in the next round. In what seemed to be the "Group of Death," both Seoul and Wanderers wilted under the pressure and had every internal issue exposed. Given all of this, it wouldn't seem as though there's much to play for Wednesday night. However, first place in Group F is on the line. If Urawa can pick up all three points against the team they pummeled 5-2 last time out, then the top spot is theirs and a potentially easier knockout round opponent awaits. A draw or loss could see Shanghai SIPG leapfrog Urawa should they pick up a result in Australia against the struggling Wanderers. There's very little to play for beyond pride for Seoul, but knocking a Japanese rival down a peg could prove to be the motivation this team sorely needs after losing three of their last four in all competitions. With the summer transfer window not set to open for another six weeks, manager Hwang Sun-hong is stuck with the team he has at the moment and needs some kind of spark to get the team going. Ending their ACL campaign with a bang instead of a whimper may be that spark.

Play The Kids

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's time to play the kids. The motivation of proving themselves at least competent internationally is all well and good, but the fact of the matter is Seoul get nothing if they win Wednesday night. Which means this is an inconsequential match sandwiched between two meaningful league matches and is the 11th of 15 games crammed into just two months. Not only is it high time to actually rest the starters, but it's beyond time for Hwang to shake up the lineup. Seoul's done well enough in the league to stay five points off the lead, but that's really all that can be said. They've never looked dominant and have rarely, if ever, truly imposed their will on another side. Even in their most lopsided victory of the year, a 3-0 home win vs Incheon, the goals came off Incheon mistakes and not Seoul's aptitude. It could be argued that champions know how to win ugly, and there's certainly truth to that, but this match vs Urawa won't affect that argument in the league whatsoever. Hwang's reluctance to change personnel in league play in the hope of grinding out ugly results is one thing, but doing so Wednesday night in ACL is another thing entirely and would be an utter waste of a golden opportunity to get some youngsters minutes.

As has been evident since February, Yoo Hyun was an absolute tire fire yet again vs Pohang and must be replaced if Seoul is at all serious about making a title run. He'll likely get beat up a bit by a powerful Urawa side, by this is a great opportunity for 25-year-old keeper Yang Han-bin to get another look in net. Yoo was so bad between the sticks in Japan the last time these teams faced off it led some to question the moral integrity of the match... so... there really isn't much further to go down beyond that. Give the kid a start and see if he can keep Urawa to two goals on the night. If so, give him a start at Sangju this weekend. There's really very little to lose when it comes to the goalkeeper position on this squad.

Play Park Chu-young Now, Not This Weekend

Of all the frustrating things Hwang Sun-hong does on a weekly basis, his insistence on getting both Dejan and Park Chu-young minutes in the same match is beginning to rank near the top. If said minutes were to come at the same time, that would be one thing, but Hwang has refused to play the two together on a regular basis. They've had a few spot starts together, but nothing significant enough to form the cohesion needed to score on a regular basis. Additionally, it's never been paired with a formation change to better suit the only two true strikers on the squad. It's a tactical misstep that continues to cost the team points and prevent the offense from firing anywhere near full capacity. However,  swapping the two in and out seemingly at random is far more frustrating. In the previous two matches Dejan has been subbed off late in favor of Park and the swap drastically changed the team. Though the two are indeed the only strikers on the squad, they play remarkably different games and opposing defenders react accordingly. It is in no way a like for like substitution and the rest of the team needs to play catch up whenever the change is made.

On his physical presence alone, Dejan demands constant attention from at least one defender to prevent Seoul from lobbing the ball up to the big man time and again. Add in the fact that the Montenegrin is tied for the Golden Boot with seven league goals already to his name and there's usually another defender at least keeping an eye on him. Park, on the other hand, has all of two league goals to his name this year. And both came from the spot. The lack of production from the run of play and difference in physical stature means defenders don't have to pay anywhere near as much attention to the Korean veteran as they do Dejan. This was on full display over the weekend in Pohang when Park came on in the 73rd minute with Seoul up 2-1. A mere 17 minutes remained, Dejan was on a hat trick, and swapping strikers isn't exactly the best way to lock down an away win. But, the substitution was made. Relieved to see Dejan off the field, Pohang was able to shift their focus and manpower to the attack and it paid off with two goals in the final seven minutes to see the hosts come away shock 3-2 winners. Had Hwang simply allowed Dejan to see the match out and not forced the team to adjust its game plan late on, perhaps the result would have been different. At the very least, Seoul would've kept Pohang concerned of their ability to score.

Instead of forcing Park into the match late, Hwang should just start him Wednesday night and get what appears to be a minutes quota out of the way. Aside from keeping a more consistent personnel on the field, playing Park from the beginning may reap some rewards. Though he's yet to do much in the league, his ACL campaign has been quite honorable with two goals in three appearances. Furthermore, starting Park could allow Hwang to go small with his lineup and play any combination of Maruinho, Yun Il-lok, Lee Sang-ho, or heaven forbid one of the kids to foster a faster pace with short passes and combination play. Dejan is the definition of a target man, so let his absence be an opportunity to try something new and see if it works. Let this meaningless match be Park's showcase for the week, keep Dejan parked on the bench and recovering energy for the weekend, and do not swap them.

Prediction

There are plenty of chances for Seoul to get some moral victories and build on what could be some talent for the league... but very few chances they actually come away winners.

FC Seoul 1-3 Urawa Red Diamonds

FIFA 17 Prediction

While I don't necessarily see things going well for the hosts this week, maybe FIFA disagrees?

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