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Writers' Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

This Sunday see's another 'clash of the titans' match up as the two best supported teams in Kleague meet again for the 3rd time this season. Jeonbuk have won both of the previous matches this term and will look to complete a treble of  victories that will consolidate their position at the top of the table, whilst Suwon look to break their current 3 match winless streak which has seen them completely drop out of title contention. Here, our Suwon columnist, Scott Whitelock, and Jeonbuk columnist, Matthew Binns, discuss the game. 

First, Scott Asks, Matthew Answers

Scott: A mere month ago it seemed like Jeonbuk would inevitably claim their 5th Kleague Classic title at a canter. But now they are holding onto top spot by the tips of their fingers. What has happened in that last month to have caused such a dramatic shift in the title chase?

Matthew: As Suwon will no doubt remember from 2015, Jeonbuk tend to lose steam in the final straight but have normally amassed enough points to ensure they cross the finish line without any bother. Last year, it took a points deduction and Champions League campaign to expose this weakness, this year it is strong and relentless opposition in the form of Ulsan and Jeju.

At the start of the season, I felt Choi Kang-hee’s squad was too thin, with the manager having effectively stopped recruiting first team players once ACL disqualification was confirmed. The defence was admittedly sorted in time, but as injuries have set in (Kim Jin-su) and yellow cards have been accumulated (Kim Min-jae), the backup options that have come in are looking particularly lackluster. It looks like it may now have to be an unattractive heave towards the trophy, but one thing you can rely on with Jeonbuk is performances against the top teams as it suits their playing style better, which should still see them well post split.

SW: Last Sunday saw Jeonbuk receive some favourable VAR decisions in their game against Daegu. Do you think VAR will continue to dominate the headlines as we head into the final few games of the season and how has VAR affected Jeonbuk thus far?

MB: I think sadly it will, which I am sure wasn’t the KFA’s intention when they announced it. It was supposed to regain the fan’s trust after a number of bribery scandals in the league but it’s implementation has gone far from smoothly, with many fans still not sure on how it should work. Personally, while I am for video assistance for referees eventually, I think it was a move that did not need to be made by the KFA at present and serves as quick fix that does not address the real underlying problems; the standard of refereeing in the K League, and the investment in terms of training and remuneration. If anything should have come from the Jeonbuk scandal, it should have been that referees are (or at least were) nowhere near paid well enough. This certainly was no excuse for the bribery, but it does make you wonder, why would a quality referee stay in this league, or even on this career path, to earn very little? Giving referees who lack confidence and ability, not to mention who are subject to a tirade of Korean netizens if they get it wrong, a video replay which makes them doubt themselves is not helping the problem of rebuilding trust in the league. The fans are more confused than ever and far more likely to turn away. VAR is a technology football will have to embrace, but I do think the KFA were foolish to implement a half cooked method mid-season in a bid to be seen as doing something.

As for Jeonbuk being specifically affected by it, there have been perhaps marginally more calls in favour than less, but I have felt most of them were accurate and justifiable. Arguably, by the strictest letter of the law, this includes at least the second disallowed Daegu goal if reports of the goalkeeper kicking a rolling ball for the goal kick to commence the attack are accurate, although I do admit it seems a tad mean. On the whole though, I don’t think there have been too many more decisions than the majority of other sides have had so far. It won’t be the last time we have something with the attention level of last Sunday this season I feel, but hopefully these issues with the method will go towards a more constructive reappraisal of VAR and how to employ it more effectively in the long run. Unfortunately for Daegu, this will mean very little if the two points they feel they were robbed of costs them their survival.

SW: Having returned from his injury with a bang scoring, 3 goals in July, Ricardo Lopes seems to be struggling for form and hasn't found the net since his controversial red card against Gwangju on the 19th of July. How important is a fully fit and on form Lopes to Jeonbuk's title hopes?

MB: Unfortunately for Lopes, his suspension coincided with the return of right winger Han Kyo-won from his civil service and then a prolonged international break, which brought to an end the short run of form he was on. Since then he has been mostly back on the bench except for a starting spot in a rotated line up in the defeat to Sangju, which did him no favours. He looked lively against Daegu when he entered play though, so hopefully he will find form again in time for the split because when he is on form, he can be one of the most feared players in the league. Having topped the club’s scoring charts in the league alongside Leonardo last season, but with all his goals coming from open play, a fully fit Lopes could prove vital if Jeonbuk are going to wrap this title up comfortably.

Furthermore, although I’ve not yet seen an injury reported, Han Kyo-won was taken off immediately after Jeonbuk’s equaliser in the first half, with the manager then reverting to a 4-4-2. If the player was removed through injury, Choi would be unlikely to play that formation from the off against Suwon so we could potentially see a return for Lopes from the start on Sunday.

SW: What is your prediction for this game? Where will the game be won and lost?

MB: One of Jeonbuk’s biggest strengths and weaknesses is their knack of playing to the level of their opponents. There have been a number of first versus second clashes this season involving Jeonbuk and, with the exception of Jeju, the North Jeolla side have won each one comfortably. They also have a fairly strong record against Suwon in recent encounters, and may very well benefit from the home side’s inconsistent form. Despite the summer departure of Kim Bo-kyung, Jeonbuk’s midfield is still fairly strong, with Lee Seung-gi finally coming into form on the left wing for the first time after his military stint and also his lengthy injury which he picked up against Suwon last March. Given his recent performances, the former young player of the year may very well be the man to watch come Sunday.

The visitors’ area of weakness may prove to be their defence, with Kim Jin-su, Kim Min-jae and Lee Yong all unavailable for this match. Combine that with the presence of walking yellow card Cho Sung-hwan as the centre-back replacement and it could spell a recipe for disaster, especially if Johnathan was lining up against them which he thankfully is not. As Daegu showed too easily though, this side lacks cohesion when their back up back line is deployed. If the Bluewings can test them enough, they should find a way through

I imagine Jeonbuk will be motivated for this, but will not keep out Suwon as they have done on the other two occasions. I will opt for a score draw, to frustrate the fans in the stadium yet keep the neutrals happy.

SW: Score Prediction?

MB: Suwon Bluewings 2-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Matthew Asks, Scott Answers

Matthew: Suwon have not tasted victory in the last three matches, with many pointing to the absence of Brazilian striker Johnathan as being to blame for their stuttering form. How much truth would you say there is to that though? Are Suwon just lacking a goalscorer?

Scott: Having scored 8 goals in the 5 games that Johnathan has been out injured, on paper at least, it would seem like a lack of goals hasn't been the problem. But what they have been missing is a clinical, cutting edge at the top end of the pitch.

Before Johnathan's injury, when the striker was at the peak of his form, Suwon were steam rolling teams into submission. Their attacking play with the Brazilian in the side was so incisive and dangerous that opposing teams could only sporadically mount attacks and the Suwon defense lived a relatively charm free life. An unbeaten run of 8 games, prior to the Seoul game where the striker picked up his injury, saw Johnathan score 10 goals as Suwon picked up heavy victories against the likes of Incheon, Jeonnam and Sangju.

But without him, although the goals haven't dried up for Suwon, the way that they are able to dictate games has completely dissipated. The goals that the Brazilian provides are vitally important, but the winning presence and mentality that the striker brings to the team are equally as important.

For me, he is the best player in K League and any team would miss the talent that he possesses. It is certainly no surprise that Suwon's dip in form has come at a time when he is not involved.

MB: Jeonbuk have won both of these fixtures 2-0 this year, with them anticipating and subsequently matching Suwon’s 3-4-3 shape on both occasions. Do you think Seo Jung-won will do anything different this Sunday to wrong-foot his opposite number?

SW: As you stated, Jeonbuk have won both of the previous encounters between these two teams this season. But what you didn't mention is that Jeonbuk won them at a canter with Choi Kang-hee's superb tactical intelligence being the key to both victories. Despite Suwon controlling the majority of both games Jeonbuk's superior defence and ability to actually take their chances saw Jeonbuk relatively stroll to 2 key victories.

Therefore, it might be in the mind of Seo Jung-won to try to influence the game in a different direction by altering his own tactics. But I think that is highly doubtful. Since discovering his magic 3-5-2 formula towards the end of last season Seo Jung-won has not switched from it. Infact, he has employed that formation all season regardless of the players available to him, often requiring central midfield players to fill in at wing-back.

Against the lesser teams the formation has worked and has suited Suwon's style of play, but against the top 3 teams (Jeonbuk, Jeju and Ulsan) Suwon have picked up a pathetic 7 points from the 24 points on offer thus far. There have been other extenuating circumstances to explain that extraordinary low points tally, but much of it falls on the managers mistakes and his inability to be tactically flexible.

MB: Lee Jong-sung and Choi Sung-keun are out of this match due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Will their absence have any affect on Suwon’s performance?

SW: With Suwon having enough cover at centre back the loss of Lee Jong-sung will be felt much less than that of Choi Sung-keun.

Having been signed in the winter following the expiration of his contract in Japan, Choi Sung-keun found it difficult to establish himself in the Suwon team and was only used sparingly in the opening ACL games of the year. During those games he was utilised as a right wing-back and didn't perform too well.

However, at the beginning of July Seo Jung-won decided to employ the defender as a holding midfielder and he hasn't looked back ever since. His impressive displays in the centre of midfield have made him an instant fan favourite and whilst not being a player who will gain many headlines he was vital to Suwon's aforementioned good run of form. He is the handbrake in Suwon's midfield and he will be missed for this game.

MB: Seo Jung-won’s performance as manager this year has generated rumors that the board are to offer him a new contract. Do you think this decision would be the correct one, especially given the drop in the side’s recent form?

SW: I personally felt that his performance last year warranted him to recieve his P45. But the spirit that the team showed towards the end of the season and the emotional FA Cup final victory against Seoul was enough to save his job.

And despite a shaky start to the season Suwon's performance has been much improved and they have played with an attacking flare that not many other teams have been able to. He has some impressive footballers at his disposal, but he also has a very imbalanced squad and has also been working against internal budget constraints. He's also had to battle against a series of unfortunate injuries and suspensions, and with that in mind, if Suwon can retain their FA Cup title and hold their current position of 4th place it would be a fair season for the club.

If he is to be offered a new contract Seo Jung-won's biggest test will come next year and nothing less than a respectable title challenge will be expected. With the key attacking talents of Johnathan and Yeom Ki-hun in the squad, and with Hong Chul to return in the summer next year, Suwon should be finishing in a higher position than just 4th and there is a lingering feeling around the club that if 'Seo' (as the supporters affectionately call him) can't provide that then he may well be surplus to requirements.

MB: How do you see this match playing out?

SW: With Suwon lacking a cutting edge up front and losing their midfield anchor man to suspension I can only foresee a Jeonbuk victory. On paper, Jeonbuk will be able to field a superior quality of player in almost every area of the pitch, and although their form hasn't been great recently they still possess the defensive grit and tactical nous to win this type of game. I don't anticipate that there will be a lot of goalmouth action in the game and Jeounbuk will just edge it and take home all 3 points.

MB: Score Prediction?

SW: Suwon Bluewings 0-1 Jeonbuk

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