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ACL Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs FLC Thanh Hoa FC

The Korean football season will begin on a cold January night in Suwon this year as Suwon Bluewings take on Vietnam's FLC Thanh Hoa in the final play-off stage of the 2018 Asian Champions League. The winner of this game will take their place in Group H alongside the likes of Sydney FC, Kashima Antlers and Shanghai Shenhua. Here, our columnist, Scott Whitelock, is joined by Vietnamese football blogger and the co-host of the Hanoi Football podcast, Bill George.  

First, Scott asks and Bill answers:

SW: Thanh Hoa are a little bit of an unknown in Asia. Could you tell us a little bit more about club?

BG: FLC Thanh Hoa have been on a steady rise for the last few years, having finished in the top three in three of the last four seasons. Based about 150km south of Hanoi the club are renowned for the passionate support of their fans, who pack in to their 11,000 capacity stadium each week. Last season runners-up spot was the clubs highest ever finish and with the financial backing of the FLC Group, they are tipped to challenge again this season.

SW: How did Thanh Hoa come to qualify for this Play-off and what would it mean to the club if they could pull off an upset and qualify for the group stages? 

BG: The club missed out on its maiden league title last season in the narrowest of margins, losing out to eventual winners Quang Nam on an inferior head-to-head record after tying for top sport in a thrilling campaign finale (which also had Hanoi FC still in the title race on the final day).
VLeague Champions Quang Nam subsequently failed to meet the AFC club requirements so the spot was offered to Thanh Hoa.

The 2nd Qualifying round saw them travel to Hong Kong to take on Eastern. After falling a goal behind Thanh Hoa nerves settled and they rose to the occasion, eventually winning 4-2 and booking their flights to Korea.

And if they won this match? Wow, that would be quite something! Of course the players and fans will have a belief they can win, but the wider football scene here will not have too many hopes, especially as it’s their debut season in continental football. If they lose this match they’ll drop Into the AFC Cup where progression form the group stage will be seen as a success.

SW: Who are the star players in the team? 

BG: Senegalese Omar Pape Faye is the main threat, having hit 11 in 19 appearances last season (he was suspended for the other 7 league matches!). The striker, who has Champions League experience with Switzerland’s FC Thun, has excellent holding play,  is powerful in the air and also loves to run at a defence. He’ll be supported by the exciting pairing of  Lê Văn Thắng and Vũ Minh Tuấn, both Vietnamese internationals.

Hoàng Đình Tùng also needs a special mention as it was the young strikers’ hat-trick that saw them past Eastern in the last qualifying round.

SW: Do Thanh Hoa play in a distinct style? Will they come out and attack their Korean opponents or simply sit back and look to counter attack? 

BG: Under Ljupko Petrović’s tutelage last season Thanh Hoa became a very disciplined outfit, conceding 29 goals, the lowest of anyone in the league. The veteran manager has since moved on and has been replaced by Marian Mihail, whose tactics and style of play with Thanh Hao are still to be seen.

The defence has been built around the experienced central duo of Danny Van Bakkel and national team player Trần Đình Đồng.  It’s not all about the defence though, with pacey wingers and a strike force comfortable either in the air or with the ball on the deck.

However, that being said, expect Thanh Hoa to approach this game with a fair amount of caution, and the tactics will certainly veer towards the defensive, with swift counter attacks.  The team will certainly take confidence in Vietnam U23’s defensive, yet effective, approach to more lucrative opponents over the last week.

SW: What is your score prediction?

BG: The nation is on a massive footballing high after the U23 Championships and a belief now exists within the footballing realms that we can compete on the wider AFC continental scene.
So I’m going to keep dreaming and go for 1-1, and a Thanh Hoa win on penalties!

Now, Bill asks and Scott answers:

BG: If Suwon successfully get past Thanh Hoa, what are the realistic targets for the club in this seasons ACL?

SW: Because Suwon have such a rich history of title wins there are always high expectations from their support base. However, after years of downsizing and cost-cutting at the club those expectations have been somewhat tempered recently. Added to that, the winner of this game will go into a group of real heavyweights (Sydney FC, Kashima Antlers, Shanghai Shenhua) where either Suwon or Thanh Hoa will be the underdogs.

The 2016 and 2017 editions of the ACL saw Suwon narrowly miss out on qualification for the group and for most Suwon fans the expectation would be that the third time should be the charm and advancing to the the knockout stages should be the aim.

BG: How’s pre-season been going in terms of transfers and the clubs preparation for the new campaign?

SW: Suwon have had a pretty successful time in the transfer market this winter despite losing their star striker, Johanthan, after his transfer to Chinese Super League side Tinajin Teda FC was completed. The reported $6 Million fee received from that transfer has been spent wisely with key players such as Dejan Damjanovic, Waguininho, Lim Sang-hyub and Lee Ki-je all being acquired. Suwon have plugged the holes of their weakest areas last season and have also moved quickly to add to their forward options leaving manager Seo Jung-won with a nicely balanced squad at his disposal.

With this game being played a full month before the Korean season kicks-off and freezing temperatures hitting Korea in January Suwon's pre-season hasn't really taken off yet. They have only managed to play 4 practice matches so far and those all came against university teams. It hasn't been ideal preparation for this game and as we almost saw with Ulsan last season, when they were taken to a penalty shootout by Hong Kong's Kitchee, poor preparation for this knockout game can cost the bigger team.

BG: How will Suwon approach this tie? Will the manager give some fringe players a chance and what’s the likely tactical approach? 

SW: Suwon's transfer policy has revealed that they expect to be a part of the group stages of this competition and as such I expect that they will field a strong and experienced team to ensure their passage to the next stage goes as smoothly as possible. Suwon's next game also isn't until March so there is no need for Seo Jung-won to rest players.

Suwon will undoubtedly line-up in Seo's preferred formation of 3-4-3 and will look to play wide and through the channels. Seo's tactics towards the end of last season also evolved into a more direct style and don't be surprised to see the odd long ball thrown up the pitch as Suwon will look to use Dejan's height and strength to their benefit.

The onus will be on Suwon to win this game and if they get the first goal I expect that they will look to put the game to bed early on and control it in the latter stages.

BG: Suwon’s new signing, Dejan Damjanovic, comes with an impressive KLeague scoring record. Has this fixture come too early for him to feature and what should we expect from the veteran striker?

SW: The signing of Dejan has been the big talking point in Korean sports this winter and his move from FC Seoul to rivals Suwon was unthinkable a little over a month ago. Dejan is a Korean and Asian football legend and despite being aged 36, and having been told by his previous manager that he should retire, he still has a lot to offer. He finished 2nd in the golden boot race last season scoring an impressive 19 goals in a struggling FC Seoul team and there are high hopes that the big Montenegrin can score more this year.

Although he is tall and strong, Dejan is much more than just a target-man, and his football intelligence is higher than most other strikers operating in the Kleague. He scores goals but he is also effective when he can drop off the forward line and link other players into play. He is an all round, technical player and his style of play will hopefully fit very well with Suwon.

BG: Score prediction?

SW: Suwon's lack of preparation isn't ideal, but the South Korean side should have enough in their locker to win this game.

Suwon 3-0 FLC Thanh Hoa

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