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playoffs

ACL Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Kashima Antlers

Suwon sit in pole position in Group H following their surprise away win to Sydney last week but will face a much sterner test this week with the visit of Japan's Kashima Antlers. Here, our Scott Whitelock, is joined by JLeague expert, blogger and writer, Stuart Smith, to discuss the permutations of this crunch game in the 2018 Asian Champions League.

Firstly, Scott asks and Stuart answers:

SW: Kashima had a decent 2017 until their disastrous performance in the end of season Emperor’s Cup. What exactly went wrong for them?

SS: Kashima undoubtedly thought the J.League title was going to be theirs after leading for much of the second half of the season. But on the final day, they could only draw at Jubilo Iwata, which meant that Kawasaki Frontale, who won 5-0 in their final game, leapfrogged them right at the death. To be honest, I don’t think it really mattered when they were knocked out of the Emperor’s Cup at the QF stage, because it meant they only had one thing to focus on, but ultimately they fell agonisingly short.

Kashima are a blue chip commodity in J.League terms. You will very rarely see them outside the business ends of competitions and always seem to have a line of good, up & coming players to be paired with the wily veterans they always seem to have. They don’t have “superstars” but they have some really good players that are able to be molded into the Kashima way of play. They aren’t the friendliest team to play against, with Mu Kanazaki, Naomichi Ueda and Mituso Ogasawara in particular being very “streetwise” - that is to say dirty or ultra professional depending on which way you look at football’s dark arts.

SW: In 2016, Kashima were only minutes away from producing one of the greatest shocks in world football history as they were narrowly beaten by Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final. Are there any members of that talented team remaining and can we expect to see the same attacking minded football that Kashima played in that tournament?

SS: That game was a truly outstanding advertisement for the J.League, and Kashima’s star that day, Gaku Shibasaki eventually made his way to Getafe in La Liga on the back of his performance in the game.

There are still plenty of surviving members of that Real game. In fact, a cursory check of the line up that day tells me that four of the team that started against Madrid, also started against Shanghai last week. Outside of the starters, forwards Yuma Suzuki and Mu Kanazaki are still there, midfield schemer Shoma Doi is still there, and they have added some attacking firepower since then in the form of Brazilians Pedro Junior and Leandro.

Attacking football is in Kashima’s DNA. Zico is still revered there after his stint at the club in the early days of the J.League, and his attacking blueprint is still the one that is espoused at Kashima Stadium. That’s not to say it hasn’t been tweaked - it has. Leo Silva is an excellent holding midfielder and screener of the defence and against Shanghai Shenhua it was he and Kento Misao who were to be responsible for Antlers’ pace of play. In theory, the solid base of midfield should provide those in front the chance to mix and match their positions, and it is this fluidity - when done right - that cause teams lots of problems.

SW: How did Kashima do in their opening group game against Shanghai Shenhua?

SS: They didn’t start very well, conceding a 10th minute goal to Shenhua midfielder Gio Moreno, thanks in part to some pretty average goalkeeping from Kashima’s long serving goalkeeper Hitoshi Sogohata.

After that, Kashima got themselves back in to the match and they did it by going down the flanks and keeping possession. They were rewarded with an equaliser just after half time when Yasushi Endo was on hand to bobble the ball in after Yuma Suzuki’s shot was saved. Antlers could have gone on to win, creating numerous chances & half chances, but almost lost it when Shenhua hit the bar additional time.

SW: Who are the danger men for Kashima?

SS: It is very easy to say Mu Kanazaki, Shoma Doi (both rested against Shanghai) or Pedro Junior are the danger men, and they are due to the fact that, if goals are going to come, the chances are that they’ll have a hand in them coming. But I think there might be a new wrinkle to Kashima’s game this year.

If anything, I think Kashima might look to get forward down the sides, and to that end Kashima’s two full backs - Atsuto Uchida (right) and Koki Anzai (left) will be very important to their cause.

Uchida’s return to the J.League - and indeed, his return to Kashima - was one of the headlines of the off-season. His career at Schalke, in the Bundesliga, had been curtailed by a serious knee injury which meant that he hadn’t really seen much of the pitch for the last two years. In a world cup year, he probably realised that he needed game time if he was to have any hope of cracking Japan’s squad for Russia and so he decided to rejoin his former club. On his day (and the caveat being that there haven’t been many of those days in recent years) he can get up and down the right side all day long. He has lots of top flight competition experience to draw on now, and that could be a huge thing for Antlers.

On the other side is new boy Koki Anzai, plucked from second division Tokyo Verdy after an eye opening campaign that saw him maraud forward from his left wing back position, almost as though he had a free role. It was amazing to see how many times he was the furthest player forward for Verdy. Now, whether he’ll be given the licence to do that for Kashima, we’ll see. He might not even play because manager Go Oiwa might prefer the experience of Shuto Yamamoto there. But if he does play, Suwon’s right sided players better have some energy drinks on standby because Anzai doesn’t stop running. And his delivery could be music to the goalscoring ears of Suzuki, Kanazaki & Pedro Junior.

SW: What is your score prediction?

SS: Having waxed lyrical about Kashima’s attacking strengths, I actually think this is going to be a very difficult game for them. Suwon are firing right now, and will almost be able to taste the knock out stage if they see off Antlers here. I think Kashima can be happy if they come away with a draw, and so I’ll plump for a 1-1 outcome.

Now, Stuart asks and Scott answers:

SS: No Johnathan, no problem for Suwon as they went to Sydney and came back with an impressive 3 points. Were you surprised with a haul of maximum points from your trip down under?

SW: With Sydney dominating in Australia the way that they are, leading to some commentators to say that they are perhaps the greatest Australian club side ever, it was certainly a surprise that Suwon went to Sydney and did so well.

But it was the manner of their victory that was perhaps more surprising as they dominated the Australian champions from the 1st minute to the last, creating opportunity after opportunity for themselves whilst limiting Sydney to not a single shot on target. Seo Jung-won's game plan of flooding midfield worked down to the last detail and the only negative in their performance was that they should have perhaps scored more.

Before the tournament began Suwon weren't really being considered as contenders but that result and performance may have made a few people begin to change their minds.

SS: Obviously a lot of the headlines in Suwon’s off season revolved around striker Dejan, who came in from FC Seoul. How has his impact been felt on the team, and by fans? Is he a good enough replacement for the departed Johnathan?

SW: There was a deflated feeling around the club when it was announced that Johnathan would be leaving to join the Chinese Super League. But the club worked wonders to quickly erase that feeling and since Dejan signed in early January there has been a complete turn around in mood, from the players, to the supporters, to the boardroom itself. The signing of Dejan, a club legend for Suwon's fiercest rivals (FC Seoul), was seismic and by far the biggest story in Korean football for the last few years. Not only was the mood buoyed because Dejan is a quality player but also because Suwon supporters had a chance to revel in their rivals misery.

While he is not a direct replacement in quality for the outgoing Johnathan, Dejan's presence has immediately been felt on the pitch. He bagged a hat-full of goals in pre-season and has taken that form into his competitive games for Suwon, scoring 3 goals in 2 games. However, his overall play seems to have added something further to what Johnathan offered Suwon. Johnathan was a dynamic, skillful player, who was capable of doing the impossible. But, he was also capable of doing the stupid, giving the ball away far too easily and just being an all round selfish player. Dejan's experience, intelligence and style of play has, so far, seen him play in a more controlled and calm manner. His strength and link-up play has allowed the entire team to play further up the pitch and attempt to be on the front foot more often.

We are only 2 games into a new season and there is a long way to go, but Suwon are looking like a much more accomplished team than they were last season and that in some part is as a benefit of Dejan's presence.

SS: Tactically, what can Kashima expect to face when they make the trip to Korea?

SW: That is difficult to say as the manager, Seo Jung-won, has used two separate formations so far this season. For the home game against FLC Thanh Hoa, Suwon lined up in an attacking 4-2-3-1 formation. Whereas, in Sydney, they reverted back to Seo's favoured 3-4-3 formation in an attempt to control the game. However, the way that Kashima were able to control possession so effectively against Shanghai Shenhua, in their previous game, may lead to Seo operating in that 3-4-3 formation and trying to stifle Kashima's talented midfield.

Regardless of the formation Kashima can expect to come up against a patient Suwon team who will look to limit the away team's number of chances, which can sometimes lead to themselves being a little toothless in attack. The likely front 3 of Dejan, Yeom Ki-hun and Waguininho will have a license to roam and will be expected to come in off the wings and create a direct threat on goal. Those 3 are also complemented by attack minded full-backs whilst the 2 holding midfielders and 3 centre-backs will rarely venture out of position.

Kashima shouldn't expect to be put under constant pressure as Suwon will pick their moments to attack, but as they have shown already, when they do attack they can be devastating.

SS: Korea-Japan clashes always have the potential to turn into feisty affairs. Is this “just another game” for the Bluewings? Or does the fact that it is a Japanese heavyweight making its way to the Big Bird turn the dial up a notch?

SW: I would like to say that the players will see this as just another game but with the political history between the two nations still being freshly felt (atleast in Korea) unseemly scenes can sometimes occur, as we saw between Jeju United and Urawa Reds last season. Having said that, the circumstances in which that Jeju brawl took place were completely different to this and I wouldn't expect we would see anything like that for sometime, if ever again.

The feeling on the terraces will be amplified but besides from a few crunching challenges on the field I would imagine that Suwon will just see this as 'business as usual' and do whatever they can to secure the 3 points that would put them within touching distance of the knockout stages.

SS: Look into your Samsung LCD crystal ball, and tell us what you think is going to happen.

SW: This will almost definitely be a tight game that will be settled by a single goal. Both teams will want to monopolise possession of the ball and it will be a war attrition in the midfield resulting in little goal mouth action. The team who is the most clinical will snatch the win and with the likes of Dejan in their team I expect that to be Suwon.

Predicted score: Suwon Bluewings 1-0 Kashima Antlers

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