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ACL Writers' Chat: Jeju United vs Cerezo Osaka

Asian Champions League action will kick off in Group G on February 14th, as Korean side Jeju United, who made their first ever appearance in the knockout stages of the competition last season, take on Japanese outfit Cerezo Osaka, who come in fresh off of their 2-1 success in the Emperor's Cup final against FM Yokohama.  Our columnist Branko Belan had a chance to speak with Japanese football pundit and photographer for Football Tribe, Dan Orlowitz, about the upcoming match.

Branko Asks, Dan Answers

Branko Belan: Could you give us a brief history of the club? (ie. in the ACL, J League and so on)

Dan Orlowitz: Cerezo Osaka are one of the J.League's oldest clubs, but since coming onto the scene they have been overshadowed by their crosstown rivals Gamba Osaka ('crosstown' is perhaps unfair, as Cerezo are located in the central city while Gamba are based in the suburbs). They first started to get attention in 2010 when they finished a club-best third in the J1 and produced a number of national team stars from their academy: namely Shinji Kagawa, Hiroshi Kiyotake, Hotaru Yamaguchi, and Yoichiro Kakitani. They are perhaps best known worldwide from their 2014 season in which they signed Diego Forlan and were disastrously relegated, but that's another story.

After two years in the J2 they enjoyed a tremendous revival in 2017 under Yoon Jong-hwan who brought them to a third-place finish as well as a cup double (the Levain Cup and the Emperor's Cup), their first major Japanese titles. This will be their third ACL campaign after a 2011 quarterfinal and their 2014 Round of 16 exit.

BB: What are the club's prospects in the Champions League this season?

DO: I consider them capable of making it to the knockout stages. If you want to draw parallels with 2014, Yoon is a much better manager than Popovic, and they also don't have the distractions that came with Forlan. On top of an already strong squad they've added some solid depth signings like Yang Dong-hyun, Toshiyuki Takagi, and Atomu Tanaka. They also benefit from not having to travel to Guangzhou until the sixth round - if they do their job it should be a dead rubber.

BB: Is there a particular player that Jeju United should be wary of and why?

DO: Kenyu Sugimoto had a beast of a 2017 season and reportedly turned down interest from Spain to stay in Japan for at least the first half of the season. Very strong forward who can handle himself physically. His national team star has been on the rise and he'll be gunning for a spot in Russia. He will be very wary of avoiding 'Kakitani Syndrome', and fortunately with Kakitani as a teammate he'll have some good advice!
BB: What characterizes the team's style of play?  What should Jeju expect?

DO: A very organized 4-4-2 with discipline on both sides of the ball. Their defense isn't quite as strong as their attack; they finished with 65 goals scored in the 2017 J1 (2nd best) but 43 goals allowed (9th best). That will be something they will have worked on this off-season. Even against stronger teams they can bend without breaking - look at their two goals against Kawasaki Frontale in the Levain Cup final to know how good their counter is.

BB: Could you give us your score prediction for the match?

I think a 2-1 win for Cerezo sounds about right, as they should be back into the swing of things after Saturday's Fuji Xerox Super Cup.

Dan Asks, Branko Answers

Dan Orlowitz: Could you introduce Jeju United? What's their fan culture like?

Branko Belan: The club was founded in 1982 as the Yukong Elephants, making Jeju the oldest team in the K League.  The team relocated to Bucheon in the mid-1990's where they stayed for almost a decade before relocating to the island in 2006.  The club has won only one championship, back in 1989, but recent success in the league with consecutive top three finishes could see them primed for a run at a second trophy.

Jeju World Cup Stadium is the team's home ground.  It's a fantastic place to watch a match, and for those who make it out, matchdays are a great thing to be a part of.  The North stand is where most of the action is, where the drum ensemble and the most raucous fans are.  I am hoping that the marketing department will promote the team more this year to get more fans into the seats.  It's an endemic problem with a lot of teams in the league - there are not enough people in the stands, and I am really hoping that will change this season.

Jeju is a team that plays very attacking football, so it is no surprise to see how they have been filling the net these past two seasons.  As the wins keep coming, I'm sure the numbers will come.

DO: What are their expectations in the ACL following last year's Round of 16 appearance?

BB: To be fair, I would have to say that progressing through the group should be the minimum aim.  It is not going to be easy, but with such an offensive squad as Jeju has had in the past several seasons, I think they will be able to gel quickly.  As long as the back line holds up well, United could be primed for a deep run if the chips fall in their favor.

DO: Who is their best Korean player and why?

BB: In my opinion, I would say Lee Chang-min is Jeju's best Korean player.  While he is still young at 24, he showed a lot of strides last season developing into an ever more present offensive threat as an attacking midfielder, and I only expect him to improve steadily this season.  He is quick and has good skill on the ball, and can see the field well.  His ball distribution has progressed admirably, and I see him as a very important cog in Jeju's offensive machine this season.

DO: What is the sentiment in SK as more Korean players/coaches choose the J.League?

BB: I would say that a lot of people are bitter about it and it's creating a lot of resentment.  Korea and Japan have a very traumatic and checkered history with each other, and anything which pits one against the other is sure to stir emotions, and for some to the highest degree.  There is the consideration that some of the Korean players who play in the J League were actually born in Japan, but  as I can see, there are more than twenty Korean players in the J League this season.  Whether certain players make the move for more money or better exposure I can't be sure, but it's a touchy subject.  There are also two Koreans on Cerezo's roster, one being starting 'keeper Kim Jin-hyeon.  Whether this will be something that will trend upwards in seasons to come remains to be seen.

DO: Predictions for score and attendance?

BB: Since Jeju will be at home to open the new campaign, I will be optimistic and say that the match will end in a 1-1 draw.  Jeju started a bit slowly out of the gates last year as well, but managed to get through the group nonetheless.  I anticipate a small turnout for the match, perhaps around 4,000 people, including the away fans.

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