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ACL Writers' Chat: Kitchee SC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

After coming back from two goals down to eventually claim victory last week, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors travel to Hong Kong to face Kitchee SC in the second round of AFC Champions League group matches. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns spoke with Offside.HK's Editor-in-Chief Tobias Zuser about what we can expect when these two domestic champions face off next Tuesday.

Tobias asks, Matthew answers:

Tobias Zuser: Jeonbuk seemed to have fallen from grace last year, being disqualified from the Asian Champions League as the title defenders. How has the team bounced back from this situation and do you see them in similar shape at the moment as in 2016, when they won the tournament? 

Matthew Binns: The disqualification last year was probably the right outcome, achieved in the wrong manner. Why a certain Australian club placed into Jeonbuk's group only bothered to complain once the group draw had been completed we can only guess at, but if the AFC really cared about their bribery antics and were not simply bowing to public pressure, they would have banned the club before allowing them to enter. There is a feeling of bitterness towards how the saga transpired, and that was heavily reflected in the team's performance last year, playing in a more pragmatic, yet ruthless manner to sweep away the K League in what often looked like misdirected vengeance. The return to the Champions League this year has been met in the same attitude, with some aggressive spending in the transfer window to provide the club the best chance of taking back a trophy they were not allowed to defend.

In terms of playing style, the shape of the side has not varied too much from 2016, with Choi Kang-hee's men still lining up in the 4-1-4-1 shape first adopted in the Champions League knockout rounds that year. It is a very high pressing style, forcing mistakes and looking to counter quickly, although if given time on the ball, the side have become reasonably adept at breaking down sides sitting back through passing play via the creative talent they boast in their midfield. Jeonbuk have tended to struggle though when sides play them at their own game. Kashiwa Reysol in the previous round caught Jeonbuk off guard through their willingness to venture forward, but it depends on the opposition's confidence and ability to not be exposed defensively when doing so.

TZ: In their first group stage game this year, Jeonbuk were already down 2-0 to Kashiwa Reysol, before starting an impressive comeback that still saw them winning 3-2 eventually. What is your take on this game, and how has the performance been perceived in Korea? 

MB: I think Jeonbuk were a little taken aback by the attacking style of Kashiwa, but credit must be given to the manager Choi Kang-hee for having the confidence to make two substitutions at half time and also adjust the shape into a 4-4-2 formation. There will be some concern of the ineffectiveness of the first half squad, and that the team is still reliant on a near-39 year-old to bail them out of trouble, but as a first match also without their two marquee signings starting, Jeonbuk can take comfort in their second half rallying. Across Korea, the headlines have naturally been in praise of Lee Dong-gook, and rightly so, for the ability he still possesses despite teasing retirement for the last two years. Ultimately though, it will be fightbacks like this that have and will continue to maintain Jeonbuk's participation across competitions this year.

TZ: Jeonbuk are currently still in pre-season. How far do you see them in their preparations at the moment, and did they have any major changes over the winter? 

MB: Jeonbuk's initial plan was a for a training camp in Okinawa, Japan combined with three friendlies in their final week. However, preparations were scuppered somewhat when Korean national team manager Shin Tae-yong called a training camp in Turkey at the end of January for players plying their trade in Asia, even though many of the same players had represented their country a month earlier when South Korea lifted the East Asian Cup. With Suwon players unable to feature due to Champions League Playoff commitments, seven first team Jeonbuk players were called upon, leaving their training camp early to play three pointless friendlies against Maldova, Jamaica and Latvia. Because of this, and also the late arrival of signings Tiago and Adriano, Jeonbuk have not actually had a pre-season friendly with their first team squad, playing mostly reserve players against local Japanese clubs. This was also perhaps reflected in the Kashiwa Reysol game where the side looked notably disjointed for the opening half. Kitchee perhaps could not have asked for a better time to face them.

TZ: Lee Dong-gook is hugely popular in Hong Kong as well, and some people believe that he will attract some additional crowds to Hong Kong Stadium that night. How important is he for the team overall? And who else should local fans watch out for? 

MB: Last year Lee Dong-gook seemed to finally accept his fate as an impact substitute, thriving in the role and still scoring in the double digits despite the few starts he actually had. However, a shock call up to the National Team last August to help ensure Korea's qualification to the World Cup, has given him a new lease of life, with teases that he would love to be considered for the Russia World Cup this June, though realistically he stands very little chance. Lee signed a one year contract at the end of last year, with the implication this would be his last. He is a hugely influential figure at the club, substitute or not, and nights like the ones against Kashiwa only serve to heighten his stature amongst the support. Jeonbuk have tried to find worthy successors to the throne of the man dubbed 'The Lion King', but expensive outlays on inconsistent players like Kim Shin-wook have only served to further Lee's stature. It will certainly be a sad day when he leaves, but hopefully he can help provide Jeonbuk fans one more season of joy.

In terms of other players to keep an eye out for, attacking midfielder Lee Jae-sung is still very much the most talented player in the squad, picking up the league's MVP award at the end of last season for his efforts. The player always ranks highly amongst the assists, but also has a knack for goal, making him a dangerous option behind the attack. With rumours swirling of a move to Europe in the summer, Lee Jae-sung will be hoping a good performance now and in Russia will help him make the move that he has undoubtedly earned during his time with Jeonbuk.

TZ: Jeonbuk clearly want to pick up all three points in Hong Kong on February 20th. How do you think they will line up - and how serious you think they are going to take their Hong Kong opponent? Do you see any weaknesses of Jeonbuk at the moment that Kitchee could hope to exploit? 

MB: Given their lack of pre-season, and that there is still nine days after this match before the K League 1 season begins, I doubt Choi Kang-hee will make too many changes from the side that faced Kashiwa, purely to give his preferred starting line up more playing time together. That said, there might be a start for Tiago after he made his debut from the bench last Tuesday and played well. We could also see a cameo appearance from new signing Adriano, the 2016 joint top scorer in the Champions League, if the manager thinks he is fit enough to play. Given their struggles in the group in 2016, surprising considering they eventually won it, I imagine Jeonbuk will be taking this very seriously as an opportunity to earn another three points in their group before the domestic campaign begins. It will be very disappointing if the manger chooses to underestimate Kitchee.

The weakest player on the pitch for Jeonbuk is sadly the goalkeeper, who the club have shown faith in by recently offering a new contract. Hong Jeong-nam had large gloves to fill when he took over the goalkeeping duties from Kwoun Sun-tae at the start of 2017, yet last Tuesday was the first time he has been tested outside of domestic competition, making three notable mistakes, two of which led to goals. Hopefully Jeonbuk eventually winning has helped him to forget the mistakes and move forward, but he could be prone to error if tested enough by Kitchee.

Matthew's Predicted score: Kitchee SC 0-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Matthew asks, Tobias answers

Matthew Binns: This is the second year there has been a Hong Kong side represented at the group stage of this competition, following Eastern’s stint last year. How is the AFC Champions League viewed by fans of the Hong Kong Premier League and what would be seen as an acceptable finish for Kitchee?

Tobias Zuser: I think football fans in Hong Kong are quite realistic about what they can expect from the Asian Champions League. It is rather perceived as a bonus event, and not as a tournament in which a club from Hong Kong could really establish itself at the moment. In fact, Hong Kong has already lost the fixed ACL group stage spot to Malaysia for the next two years. There will still be the chance for the league champions to qualify through the preliminary round, but it is probably more worthwhile to focus on the AFC Cup for the near future, in which local clubs would have good chances to advance to the finals.

That said, any ACL result that is better than the one of Eastern last year would be seen as a successful campaign. This means, if Kitchee could pick up more than one point, and maybe cause at least one major upset, particularly during their home games, the local fans would be more than satisfied. But I am pretty sure that no one expects them to compete for a spot in the Round of 16.

MB: Tuesday night saw Kitchee record a rare loss, having only tasted defeat once across all competitions since being knocked out by Ulsan at the play off stage of last years’ Champions League. What lessons do you think Kitchee will learn from that defeat and could it knock their confidence ahead of the Jeonbuk clash?

TZ: Yes, it will be interesting to see how much of their first loss was actually self-inflicted. Kitchee have probably one of the strongest squads of a Hong Kong club in recent history, so player-wise you cannot do much better. In addition to their four foreign players, they can also use up to seven naturalized players, who have already represented Hong Kong internationally. However, for some reasons coach Alex Chu Chi-kwong fielded an extremely risky starting line-up against Tianjin, using just three defenders and giving the full wing back positions to two attacking players. Unsurprisingly, this quickly backfired. The hope is that Kitchee realised that they have to embrace their role as underdogs and that they cannot play with the same dominance as in domestic competitions. This would even mean that they should favour some of the experienced local players over naturalized ones, though I am not sure yet if the team management is actually willing to do so. Hopefully, they will also have a better counter-attack strategy, which still looked very incoherent. However, they do have some options on the bench, and maybe they have learnt the right lessons in their ACL debut.

MB: Kitchee made headlines in the winter with the signing of Uruguay’s record goalscorer Diego Forlan. How has he adapted to life at Kitchee and what does he bring to the team?

TZ: I think he actually adapted quite quickly and has already scored several goals in the league. However, in domestic competitions Kitchee have another dangerman in front, Lucas Silva, who was not nominated for the ACL. Without him, the role for Forlan is much more demanding and that was probably the reason why he was pretty much invisible in the match against Tianjin. The advanced age of 38 probably doesn’t help either when you are up against Asia’s best clubs. That said, he can still pose a major threat from dead ball situations and Jeonbuk would be well advised not to allow any free kicks within a 30-yard range. Unfortunately, Kitchee were missing these chances in the Tianjin game, but hopefully they will have some more opportunities like this on Tuesday. In the league, Forlan has already scored three free kick goals, which were almost identical, so he definitely still knows how to curl the ball past the goalkeeper.

MB: Besides Forlan, who should Jeonbuk be watching out for when they pay Kitchee a visit on Tuesday?

TZ: Forlan has taken most of the attention, but I would actually say that he is not Kitchee’s key player. Hungarian midfielder Krisztian Vadocz, who was Forlan’s teammate at Mumbai before, is actually much more important, although he has yet to make his mark in the ACL. He is a quiet player, and usually not the most outstanding one, but he not only holds the team together, but also has the necessary overview to launch threatening through-passes. Another crucial player is Huang Yang, who is one of the fan favourites and a regular in the national team. He is probably the best defensive midfielder in Hong Kong at the moment, but his importance is often overlooked.

MB: How do you see Kitchee approaching this match and can they pull off an upset?

TZ: I hope Kitchee will start in a more realistic fashion, that means with at least three centre-backs and two proper full-backs, e.g. in the form of Lo Kwan-yee and Tong Kin-man. That should give them much more stability in the back, as I think it will be crucial for Kitchee not to concede a goal in the first half. In the attack, they might want to give a chance to Alex Akande on the right – instead of Sandro in the centre – which might balance their abilities on the wings. The overall strategy will probably still be centred on set-pieces, so we are always left with some hope for an unexpected result.

Tobias' Predicted Score: Kitchee SC 1-3 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. I think Kitchee will do better than last Tuesday, but just don’t see them being a match for Jeonbuk at the moment

We'd like to once again extend our thanks to Tobias Zuser for joining us for this match preview. Tobias is the Editor-in-Chief at Offside.HK, Hong Kong's first English football magazine. For all the latest news on Hong Kong football, make sure to visit their website or follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

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