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Writers' Chat: FC Seoul vs Suwon Bluewings

The fourth and final Super Match of 2017 sees the Bluewings two points ahead of Seoul and clinging to the final AFC Champions League (ACL) spot. Both teams will look to extend a five game unbeaten streak and take away points from their bitter rivals with barely enough time left in the season to make up the difference. I spoke with our Suwon columnist Scott Whitelock about each manager handcuffing their team, Jonathan vs Dejan, defensive strengths and weaknesses, and much more ahead of this decisive match.

Scott Asks, Ryan Answers

Scott Whitelock: Midway through the season it looked more likely that Seoul would be fighting against the threat of relegation rather than battling for a place in the ACL next year. What has brought Seoul to this point and is there a sense of surprise that Seoul are in such a positive position now? 

Ryan Walters: That Seoul are in this position is indeed a surprise, but to call it positive is something only a Bluewings fan could muster. Clinging to the hope of a 4th place finish and still needing help from Ulsan just to qualify for K League's final ACL spot is a far cry from what's expected of this team year to year. It's far more shocking when considering they're just one year removed from being in contention for each of the three major trophies on offer in Korea. Last season's run and the talent still on the roster (though depleted from 2016) is what made the woeful stretch of games in May and June and the subsequent plummet down the table so astonishing. The fact that Seoul have since been able to pick up wins against the likes of Gwangju, Incheon, Jeonnam, and Pohang to claw their way back into the top four isn't surprising. It's the bare minimum. And they're not even doing that in convincing fashion.

SW: In recent years games between these two teams have been terse, turgid and boring affairs, even more so since Hwang Sun-hong took over as manager at FC Seoul. However, with Seoul desperately needing to take all 3 points from this game do you think the manager will alter his usual cautious game plan at all? 

RW: After pulling off his best José Mourinho and playing for the away draw last weekend, let's hope so. To be fair, a point in Jeonju would usually be more than respectable at almost any other point in the season. However, with Suwon taking care of business against Ulsan, playing for the draw has shown itself to be the wrong strategy, but I get it. There was still plenty to lose last weekend if Seoul failed to get anything out of the match. The same isn't quite true this weekend. If Seoul's to have any hope of overtaking Suwon this year, it must be Saturday. Playing cautiously and hoping for Suwon to falter in one of the three remaining matches is more of a gamble than simply going for it when playing head to head. With this in mind, hopefully Hwang will take the gloves off a bit and not only start his strongest lineup, but allow them the freedom to move forward more frequently.

SWSince their surprising loss to Incheon a month ago Seoul have conceded only 2 goals in 5 games and have kept 3 consecutive clean sheets. What do you consider to be the weakest link in Seoul's defence and what can Suwon do to penetrate what is an impressive Seoul backline? 

RW: Three consecutive clean sheets is always something for a defense to celebrate, but considering who the opposition was should concern Suwon fans a bit. Jeonbuk is self explanatory, and while Sangju and Jeonnam don't seem like much looking at the league table, each squad has one of the top five strikers in the Golden Boot race in Joo Minkyu and Jair respectively. In fact, Seoul were the first team to keep Minkyu off the scoresheet after the Seoul E-Land loanee had scored in his previous seven straight; leaving him just one match shy of K League's consecutive games scored record of eight. In each of their previous three matches, Seoul has shown a remarkable ability to shut down star strikers. Something unheard of from a previously porous defense, and something that should concern the newly returned Jonathan a bit. Though he didn't exactly show any signs of rust scoring against Ulsan last time out.

As far as getting one by Seoul's backline, Suwon is amazingly well set up to exploit a season long weakness... if manager Seo Jungwon lines his men up in the correct positions. Throughout all of 2017 Seoul have had issues clearing - or even defending - crosses into the box, and there are few better in the business than Suwon talisman Yeom Kihun. As you've rightly lamented in the past, Seo has had a tendency to play Yeom's magical left foot up the middle and waste the veteran's crossing ability. Should Seo resist that urge and play Yeom closer to the touchline, he would likely get the better of a battle with Shin Kwanghoon and ping in crosses to Jonathan for what could be a long afternoon for the Seoul center backs.

SWSeoul have suffered from a lack of goals and cutting edge all season with only Dejan Damjanovic registering double figures this year. However, the talismanic Montenegrin hasn't scored since early August. Without his crucial goals who else on the team can score the goals needed for Seoul to win this game? 

RW: That's the same question that's plagued the team all season, and one that should have been more directly dealt with during the summer transfer window. Picking up former Ulsan Hyundai captain Ivan Kovacec was a sensible signing with him out of contract, but still not one that would help ease the burden on Dejan up top. Filling their final foreigner spot with Khaled Shafiei may pan out next season (I hope), but the Iranian defender has only seen 100 minutes this season and despite any quality he may have, won't be helping the team score goals any time soon. The lack of any true help up top through both transfer windows overseen by Hwang has laid bare his misguided faith in veteran Park Chuyoung, who has scored just three of his eight goals from open play this year. That said, Chuyoung does have a tendency to show up in big matches, so he will be one for Suwon to watch this weekend. If neither of Seoul's veteran strikers can find the back of the net, look for the team to try and draw soft fouls in Suwon's half to set up set pieces, as those have been the team's only consistent source of joy over the past month.

SW: What is your prediction for this game?

RW: The cliches about throwing form out the window for rivalry matches will most likely come to fruition this this weekend, but it's difficult to look past at the moment. Even though Seoul are on a five game unbeaten run and haven't conceded in 280 minutes, the bulk of those games were against Relegation Round opponents, and even against those teams Seoul has yet to win convincingly. Add in the fact that Jonathan is a difference maker on par with none other in K League, and I think the blue-clad fans will be leaving Seoul World Cup Stadium happy for the second autumn in a row.

FC Seoul 1-2 Suwon Bluewings

Ryan Asks, Scott Answers

Ryan Walters: Much like Seoul, the Bluewings have fared better playing in opposition territory this year. Suwon have picked up 30 away points as opposed to 26 at home, have just two away losses compared to six at Big Bird, and have split their 56 goals evenly between home and away. They haven't even failed to pick up away points since their July 1st loss at Ulsan. It may not seem favorable to most teams, but does having so many away matches to close out the season actually favor Suwon? Do you think that form will be a factor this weekend? 

Scott WhitelockAs you said, Suwon have been in horrendous form when playing in their own stadium this year, and it is this form at home that leaves them lying in the lowly position of 4th. Dropping points at home to the likes of Daegu, Gwangju, Sangju and Gangwon is not a sign of a true champion team and if Suwon are to ever challenge for the title again their home form needs to change in future seasons.

However, their away form has been sensational and although their last 3 away games have ended in draws they are still a team to be feared when they are on the road. With the onus on home teams to attack and control games Suwon have enjoyed the extra space in attacking areas that has not been afforded to them when teams visit Suwon World Cup Stadium and defend their own half diligently.
Playing away from home in this Super Match will almost certainly suit Suwon and with Seoul needing the full 3 point haul from this game there may be enough space in the attacking 3rd for the likes of Johnathan, Santos and Park Ki-dong to exploit.

RW: After a rather speedy recovery, Golden Boot (and possibly MVP) leader Jonathan is back for the Bluewings. How much do you see him factoring into the final Super Match of 2017? Is he healthy enough to go the full 90 and do you think he'll add to his league best 20 goals?

SW: He will be vital to Suwon’s cause, whether he can get a goal or not, as the difference in quality of Suwon’s general play is vastly effected by the striker’s presence on the pitch. Without the striker Suwon’s play is slow, sluggish and unimaginative. However, when the striker is involved it is almost like the shackles are lifted and every player is able to play either to or above their potential. Moreover, the Brazilian poses a very significant fear factor for opposing defenders and is a very unique threat that Korean defenders don’t face every week. His pace and trickery is enough to force most teams to ask two or three men to mark or track him which in turn allows other attacking players to contribute more.

Combine all of that with his goals and he is the pulse and life of this Suwon team and it wouldn’t be controversial to suggest that Suwon may be in the opposing half of the split if it wasn’t for Johnathan’s season long contribution. Johnathan this week revealed on social media that he still isn’t fully fit and he played through pain during his comeback game against Ulsan. But his performance in that game (an exceptional one in which he dominated the game) was enough to show that he can still challenge the best defences in Kleague even when he is playing at half capacity.

RW: Apart from their four goal outburst at Gwangju in Round 30, Seoul have averaged less than a goal per match and will need to keep this one close if they have any hope of winning. What do you see being the most effective way to shut down Suwon's otherwise lethal attack?

SW: Their best form of defence may be to do what they did in the previous Super Match and injure Johnathan. On that day, the Brazilian was on the wrong end of a number of crunching challenges  before one, on the stroke of half time, fractured his leg and the game was settled in Seoul’s favour when he left the pitch. Besides cynically injuring another professional, Seoul would be wise to defend their flanks well as that is where Suwon’s strength lies. The spine of the team is strong and functional, but Suwon’s goals rarely come from central areas and if Seoul force Suwon to play through them then they may be able to control the game more easily. However, if, in their search for a goal, they leave their flanks exposed then I expect Suwon to have a successful day at the office on Saturday.

RW: A win for Suwon this weekend would put them 6 points clear of Seoul and all but mathematically eliminate the 2016 Champions from an ACL spot next season. How much do you think that's motivating the team and can they get the result?

SW: I don’t think any extra motivation is required for a Super Match and it is the game that every professional in Korea should desire to play in. Having said that, the thought of getting one over their old enemy and almost putting themselves out of sight of Seoul must be on at least some of the player’s minds. With their record against Seoul being so poor this season (2 losses and 1 draw) I am not sure if Suwon have what it takes to win this game and if you offered Seo Jung-won a point now he would probably take it. But, with the return of Johnathan and with the new found form of fellow front man Park Ki-dong I think Seoul are facing a different Suwon team to what they faced earlier in the season. Their performance against Ulsan last weekend was so impressive and although they did not create an abundance of clear cut chances they dominated their opponents throughout and controlled the game from start to finish. If they can produce another dominant display like that then I would expect either Johnathan or one of his supporting cast to be on hand to grab the glory and seal Seoul’s fate.

RW: Score Prediction?

SW: FC Seoul 2-2 Suwon Bluewings

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