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Preview: Gwangju FC vs FC Seoul

Both Gwangju and Seoul enter Wednesday night in desperate need of a win after suffering devastating losses that may have sealed their season's fate over the weekend. The two teams will have little time to get over their calamitous late collapses as the season's last round of midweek fixtures hits at a poor time for each. Each side find themselves looking further up at their season goal than this time last week and genuinely need all three points if there's to be any hope heading into the split.
(image via gwangjufc.com)


Overview

(soccerway.com)

Came To Win

Starting all four foreigners for the first time this year, it was quite clear manager Hwang Sunhong went to Incheon Sunday afternoon intending to sweep the 2017 Gyeongin Derby. After convincing 3-0 and 5-1 wins in their previous two meetings, it almost seemed like overkill to have Dejan, Kova, Osmar, and the reemerged Khaled Shafiei starting the game. It's something Matthew Binns and I touched on in our pregame video, and both agreed those four alone would be enough for Seoul to emerge victorious. On paper, the Starting XI not only showed how badly Hwang and company wanted to win, but indeed how badly they needed to.

In spite of playing the 11th placed team just over an hour from home, Seoul elected to put out their strongest possible lineup because they couldn't afford not to. The capital club entered Sunday's match six points back from rival Suwon for 4th place and the last chance at AFC Champions League 2018. However, even finishing 4th might not be enough to guarantee Seoul a spot in the ACL next year, so they were likely looking at back to back matches vs the 11th and 12th placed teams as an opportunity to get six points and put pressure on Ulsan for 3rd place after the split. Unfortunately for Seoul they needed to actually come out and win the game in order to do that. A simple fact that seemed lost on nearly everyone in red and black Sunday afternoon. Seoul's strongest lineup took the field, somehow managed to miss a wide open net, and still had the body language of a team that just knew the match would come to them. It never did.


A Question of Motivation

After the undertaking of keeping 2nd place Jeju off the board on September 9th, Seoul should have been able to breathe relatively easily with their easiest stretch of games this season lying ahead... at least on paper. At Incheon (10th), at Gwangju (12th), home to Pohang (7th), at Jeonnam (8th), and at Sangju (11th) are the final five scheduled matches before the league splits in a few weeks. Facing five of the bottom six surely should have been enough for Hwang to motivate his men to handle the straightforward task before them: beat the teams your record says you're better than and earn a place in ACL. In spite of this, Seoul stumbled out of the gate and lost to a bottom six side yet again. Sunday's shock 1-0 loss marked the fifth time this season Seoul has lost to a bottom six club. In fact, they have a considerably worse record against Relegation Round teams than they do against Championship Round sides. The red and black have a winning 6W-6D-3L record vs the top half, but have stumbled to a 5W-4D-5L mark against the bottom half; a discrepancy that will likely cost them their usual spot in international competition next year.

With 29 rounds in the books this inability to beat teams below them in the table cannot be considered an anomaly, but instead confirms that Seoul have been playing to their opponent all year. When the fearsome (and let's face it, hideous) green and blue kits of Jeonbuk were across the field, Seoul suddenly found cohesion and were ready for battle. Every player on the pitch knew what the rivalry meant to each city, and indeed the league, and came ready to play. Similarly, in two trips to Big Bird, Seoul knew what winning the Super Match meant to their fanbase, their season, and their legacy and they found ways to win. However, that same tenacity just won't inherently be there for players when they're facing the likes of Gwangju, Sangju, or Daegu. It doesn't feel like there's as much on the line when you're facing a team fighting to avoid relegation. That's where Hwang is supposed to step in and ensure his men are preparing the same way to face first or twelfth. Sure it's a cliche in sports, but it's a cliche for a reason. Jeonbuk isn't currently cruising to the title with a .500 mark against the bottom half of the table. As their 4-0 drubbing of Pohang showed over the weekend, Choi Kanghee has his club ready to destroy whoever is put in front of them. After nearly a full season at the helm, it's clear Hwang has no idea how to do the same in Seoul. Motivation, guidance, and direction are all 100% coming from the players on the field. While that's good enough to win an emotional match like the 2-1 victory vs Jeonbuk (which is clearly going to be the high water mark this season), it's not enough to steer an entire team through a successful season. Nor should it be. The players need someone with an eye on the bigger picture to keep them grounded after success and boot them in the ass when complacence sets in. Hwang's indifference after tough loss after tough loss continued to pile up this year has only cultivated a laissez faire attitude from the top down. If the manager doesn't care about losing to Sangju at home, why should the players? This lack of leadership was never better on display than on Sunday when the defending champions were shut out for the second match in a row and most didn't even hang their heads or look angry. They put their hands on their hips, shrugged, and moved on with mediocrity. Just like their manager taught them to.

The Adversary

Much like Seoul, Gwangju are coming off of their own disappointing late loss that all but sealed their fate this season. While Seoul will be distressed to ostensibly fall out of ACL contention, Gwangju received a gut punch in the form of a 95th minute Kim Honam go ahead goal that temporarily pushed Sangju Sangmu out of the relegation zone. The military team came into the match on an eight game winless streak and Gwangju looked poised to take advantage of the relegation six pointer with Northern Ireland international Niall McGinn getting the third start of his brief K League career. However, it was the hosts getting on the board first thanks to a lovely pivoting strike from former Seoul E-Land standout Joo Minkyu. McGinn's halftime sub Cho Juyoung leveled it for Gwangju in the 52nd and 94th minute, which should have been enough, but some typically woeful clearance attempts and poor positioning doomed Gwangju yet again when a bouncing ball eventually fell to Kim Honam, and that was all she wrote. Had Gwangju managed to hang on even for even a single point, they would have had a decent chance of leapfrogging Sangju post-split and forcing the military team into the guaranteed relegation spot of 12th place. Instead the loss widened the gap to eight points and all but officially cemented Gwangju's place in K League Challenge next season.

The hosts will be looking to shake off the defeat in quick order and need look no further than the fond memory of Seoul's last visit to Gwangju World Cup Stadium, when the city side knocked off an over-confident Seoul 3-2. Gwangju may be reeling at the moment, but this is a team that's beaten Jeonbuk and Seoul already this season and has proven they can go toe-to-toe with anyone on their day. Combine their ability to claw out results against even the best teams with Seoul's penchant to play down to their opposition and the visitors may be in for yet another surprise.

Who To Watch

The aforementioned Niall McGinn just got his third start over the weekend, but went just 45 minutes. His single half appearance may have been with an eye on this midweek fixture and having him feature more prominently in it. With just 236 minutes logged for Gwangju it isn't surprising McGinn hasn't scored for his new club yet, but the quality is unquestionably there and should he go the full 90 Wednesday night, he will cause headaches for Seoul's back line. After back to back 10 goal seasons for Aberdeen FC in the Scottish Premiership, a lot has been and is still expected of the possibly short term move to Korean shores. Should McGinn want to stay in Korean next season and draw the eye of a giant like Jeonbuk, Ulsan, or even Wednesday night's opposition Seoul, then he'll need to start finding the back of the net sooner than later. Considering Seoul only have two away clean sheets this season, this may be his best chance yet to impress a potential future employer.

Prediction

Week after week Seoul has proven to be anything but predictable, so this is yet another one that's difficult to call. In theory, they should be able to walk away with three points and a few days to rest up before Pohang visits this weekend. In reality, it's little more than a crapshoot to suggest there's any way of knowing how this will go. I'd like to think one of these teams will find the motivation to save their season, but given current form, I just can't see it happening.

Gwangju FC 1-1 FC Seoul


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