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East Asian Cup: Japan vs South Korea Writers' Chat

Although neither team's road to the final has been the most thrilling football, both South Korea and hosts Japan have set themselves up to take home a trophy this Saturday. With both manager's eyeing potential talent to take along to Russia 2018, I chatted with J League Regista's Stuart Smith about who to watch, what to expect, and who will come out on top of the EAFF E-1 Football Championship.

Stuart Asks, Ryan Answers

Stuart Smith: How seriously are Korea treating this tournament? What is the goal?

Ryan Walters: Although the on field performance may not suggest it at times, I think the players that are in Tokyo are taking the tournament quite seriously. The usual heavy hitters on the squad are still plying their trade over in Europe, so this is a great chance for the Asian-based players to stake their claim for regular minutes in the lead up to Russia. Which I think, even more than winning, is manager Shin Taeyong's goal for the tournament. Take a look at the talent lower on the roster and see what they might be able to offer next year.

SS: There is always rivalry when the East Asian teams get together for a dust up. With the relatively low-key build up to this edition of the EAFF, do you think the edge will still be there?

RW: It's doubtful anything would ever truly qualify as a friendly between these two nations, so regardless of when, where, or what's on the line, I think Korea vs Japan is always going to carry a lot of intensity. It took a North Korea own goal to ensure the Taeguk Warriors would have a shot at silverware this weekend, but the points count all the same and knowing a trophy is on the line will up that intensity even more. Additionally, other than the Jeonbuk players on the squad, it's been quite a while since most of these guys have lifted a trophy, so that in and of itself would be enough motivation. Throw in the fact that they can lift said trophy in front of their most bitter rival in Tokyo and we should be in for quite the contest.

SS: Who are the newcomers in the Korean squad? What can we expect from them?

RW: The pair of Seongnam players - midfielder Kim Sungjoon and keeper Kim Dongjun - are the only uncapped players on the roster, and that's probably not going to change this weekend. They were likely brought in simply to be part of the camp and get a sense of the national team experience. Also previously uncapped before Tuesday's affair vs the North was Jeju United forward Jin Seongwook, who had a decent run out in his first game. Perhaps his biggest issue was being the tip of a mismanaged 4-3-3 with far too similar options flanking him and none overly familiar with their role in the system. However, he consistently found himself in good positions, had tremendous off the ball movement, and was able to create several chances. Jin never did find the mark, but had a strong enough performance that he could be a decent substitution should Korea need a spark late on.

The newcomers most K League fans have been looking forward to though are Jeju midfield dynamo Lee Changmin and FC Seoul winger Yun Illok. Likely already on a few radars for his outstanding play in the 2017 AFC Champions League, Lee Changmin had a marvelous season pulling the strings of one of K League's most entertaining attacks. He fits this current roster and its lack of attacking depth extremely well as he can create for himself as well as he can for others. Lee does have a tendency to shoot from a bit too far out at times, but with goals like the one he scored against Gamba Osaka in his highlight reel, it's hard to blame him.

Unlike his Jeju counterpart, FC Seoul's Yun Illok is yet to see the field this tournament in a somewhat surprising move from Shin. Illok led the K League in assists for the majority of the season despite playing in limited minutes, and only lost the honor at the very tail end of the season. The 25-year-old's talent is still a bit too raw for someone his age, but he has plenty of speed on the wings, crosses well, and tracks back better than most wingers in the league. If Shin Taeyong's going to stick with the 3-4-3 this weekend, playing Yun on the wing would be a great way to ensure some quality service for Kim Shinwook while maintaining enough defensive coverage to prevent easy counterattacks.

SS: Are there any players in the squad that are on their last chance to impress?

RW: Although it definitely won't be his last chance, Yeom Kihun hasn't looked himself in quite a while and may need to be dropped from the squad for a bit. He was played out of position as a striker for most of the Bluewings' 2017 season and it seems to be having a knock on effect as he simply can't provide service the way his magical left foot usually can. However, he's an absolute legend in Suwon, a long time KNT player with 55 caps, and based on those two things alone will almost certainly be on the roster heading to Russia regardless of the form he's in.

SS: Score Prediction?

RW: There's really no other way to put this, Korea just has not looked good this tournament. They twice coughed up the lead against a Chinese side they should have been able to see off and needed North Korea to score on themselves to pick up a win. The team is doing extremely well in the midfield and pushing forward, but like the vast majority of K League clubs, they're blindly heaving the ball into the middle hoping for the best once they get into the final third. Their best chances have come when the smaller, more technical players (like Lee Jaesung) have been able to see the ball for long stretches, keep it on the ground, and create with quick passes. However, that hasn't happened with anywhere near enough frequency. All of that said, this is a competitive match against Japan with a trophy on the line. Look for Korea to pull it all together at the last and come home with hardware.

Japan 1-2 South Korea

Ryan Asks, Stuart Answers

Ryan Walters: Japan's roster is comprised entirely of J League players for this tournament. Does this have more to do with the tournament falling unfavorably with international calendar or is manager Vahid Halilhodžić trying to make a statement about the local league?

SS: I believe it is mostly due to the scheduling of this tournament. Having said that, in theory it shouldn't do any harm to have a look at the domestic players that are available for selection.

RW: Aside from Gamba Osaka's Yasuyuki Konno, and Kashima's Mū Kanazaki, none of these players have double digit caps for the Samurai Blue. Do you see this as a chance for squad rotation spots, or possibly to earn a trip to Russia?

SS: Absolutely. This is a golden chance for those selected to "get some face time with the boss" and to impress in the hopes of being asked to stick around for next year. Personally, while I get the argument for experience, I don't see why Konno is in the squad. It's not that he isn't a good player, he clearly is. And he'll clearly be in the World Cup party next year, and so my thinking is Halilhodzic knows what he'll get from him and so should use this opportunity to test what others have got (Kento Misao for instance). There are some in this squad that will almost certainly be on the plane to Russia next summer, players like defender Gen Shoji (although no-one had any idea that he had 40 yard golazo's in his armoury) and midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi are almost assured of their squad places. Ideguchi, while not being super experienced, is rapidly becoming a fixture in the side - his decisiveness in all aspects of midfield play have made him a key cog in the side (and a target for Leeds United in England). But others (especially on the defensive side, it seems) are looking to play their way into contention. Centre backs Naomichi Ueda (who, for some reason, played at right back against China) from Kashima Antlers and Genta Miura from Gamba Osaka will look for playing time in order to advance their cases.

RW: Of the newcomers on the roster, who are you the most excited to see get some minutes in the EAFF?

SS: I was actually excited, as were a lot of people, to see Cerezo Osaka forward Kenyu Sugimoto get some playing time. He had an outstanding year for his club, and many people in Japan are thinking that he could be a very useful addition to the national team. Unfortunately, Sugimoto fractured a rib and is deciding whether to have it operated on. Given that Sugimoto is not available, Kashiwa Reysol pair Kosuke Nakamura and Junya Ito stand out as ones that have a lot to gain in this tournament.

Goalkeeper Nakamura is Japan's next (only?) great goalkeeping hope. He burst into the consciousness of Japanese football observers when he helped second division side Avispa Fukuoka to promotion as a 20 year old, and since then his stock has grown and grown. Seemingly unlike Korea, Japan doesn't really have a lot of goalkeeping depth behind entrenched starter Eiji Kawashima. With a good showing in this competition I expect Nakamura to seal his spot as Japan's number two, and I wouldn't bet against him making a strong run at the starting job in the lead up to Russia 2018. As he showed against North Korea, his shot stopping is his calling card but he is technically excellent in goalkeeping terms. He gets his feet set in the right positions, he is very rarely caught off balance, he makes himself as big as possible at the point of attack, and he exudes authority on the pitch. He has a tendency to make "camera saves" every so often, but with an all-round game as good as his, he can carry it off.

Junya Ito is your stereotypical Japanese winger: small, fast & tricky but with work to do on his final ball. He undoubtedly livened things up on the right hand side when he came on against North Korea last weekend and I would hope that he is given a starting chance in this upcoming game. Takashi Inui has the speedy/skillful winger role sewn up at the national team level, but behind him Ito has the chance to step up and be considered. Ito played relatively well against China, but is dealing with a bruised thigh so the indications on whether he'll be available are currently unclear.

RW: If Korea were to exploit one weakness in this Japanese side, what do you think it would be?

SS: If we're brutally honest (and I assume we are) then Japan's full backs aren't really up to much. In the first game, FC Tokyo's Sei Muroya (right) and Shintaro Kuramaya weren't particularly convincing. Kurumaya is coming off a fantastic season for Kawasaki Frontale, but is still relatively inexperienced. Muroya has been a disappointment at FC Tokyo (although he is far from alone in that particular situation), and left back Shuto Yamamoto got pinged for a penalty against China on Tuesday. If I were the Korean coach, I'd tell my players to get the ball wide and get at whichever full backs play. Halilhodzic may change things up - young right sided player Ryo Hatsuse might get a look while Naomichi Ueda, a centre back by trade, played there on Tuesday but whoever plays at the full back positions should be in for a busy night.

Japan selected three goalkeepers for this tournament, with Nakamura starting against North Korea and Gamba Osaka 'keeper Masaaki Higashiguchi in nets against China. Could this mean that the third choice, Sagan Tosu's Shuichi Gonda, will be the started against Korea? If he is, he is the weakest of the goalkeeping group - especially under the high ball and so if Korea have any erstwhile target men, they should look to utilize them.

RW: Conversely, what strengths will Japan look to focus on in their final match this Saturday?

SS: To be honest, there weren't a lot of strengths on show for Japan against North Korea last Saturday. I expect a better performance out of the Samurai Blue, and I would hope that they make more use of their possession. To that end, if I were coach, I would have put Ryota Oshima (Kasawaki Frontale) in the side. Oshima has learned his trade under the wily auspices of Kengo Nakamura at club level, but is a fine player in his own right. Technically excellent with a good range of passing, a direct line between him and Yu Kobayashi (playing in his favoured position as a "one top" striker, please!) could have been very enticing.

However, that plan has been derailed as Oshima was forced off in the first half against China after sustaining what looked like a hamstring pull (or possibly a tear). Abe is a bit of a wild card, but he is really good in the space between the forwards & the midfield and is good when floats out wide positions. He has developed a good understanding with Kobayashi and I think that would count for a lot in the game against Korea. However, it will be interesting to see whether Halilhodzic continues with his rotation by selecting Jubilo Iwata striker Kengo Kawamata to start and if he does, Kawamata is a smart forward who gets into good positions. He has a really good ability to time jumps for headers well and so I would expect Japan to try and take advantage of that if he plays.

RW: Score prediction?

SS: I think Japan will play better than they did last weekend, but they'll have to as I think South Korea will represent a step up in terms of opposition. I'm hopeful a more dynamic Japan will turn up in this encounter and if they do then I hope that Japan come up with a 2-1 win.

If you are in the Seoul area this weekend, come say hello! We'd love to chat about all things KNT, K League, and pretty much anything else with you at The Upper Deck on Saturday!

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