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ACL Writer's Chat: Sydney FC vs Suwon Bluewings

Suwon make the arduous journey to face Sydney FC on Valentine's Day and there will be no love lost as both teams attempt to make a winning start to the 2018 Asian Champions League. Can Suwon continue to play the scintillating football they displayed in their 5 goal thrashing of FLC Thanh Hoa or will the Sydney juggernaut take their unstoppable league form into continental competition? Here, our Suwon Bluewings correspondent, Scott Whitelock, is joined by SFCU.com.au writer, Grant Muir, to discuss this important match-up. 

First, Scott asks and Grant answers

SW: Sydney qualified for the ACL by virtue of strolling their way to the league title last season. Is the core of that squad remaining or were there major changes in pre-season?

GM: For the most part, our squad is the same. We’ve been very fortunate to retain a lot of our championship winning team, with very few  exceptions. Rhyan Grant our left back was injured in pre-season training and is out for most of the season. He was replaced by Luke Wilkshire, an older but highly experienced player who played for 12 years in Europe. Grant plays as an attacking wingback, overlapping with the midfielders to stretch defences and is famous for being able to run from one end of the ground to the other for 90 minutes at full speed. Wilkshire doesn’t play in such an athletic, attacking manner, but what he lacks in pace he makes up for with expert positioning.

Two players left, goalkeeper Danny Vukovic who went to Belgium and attacking midfielder Filip Holosko who returned to Slovakia. Our new goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne, signed from our rivals Western Sydney Wanderers and he currently leads the league in clean sheets and Holosko’s replacement, Adrian Mierzejewski has been tearing up the league and is very likely to win the Johnny Warren Medal awarded to the best player in the league each year. His attacking midfield partner, Milos Ninkovic won the Johnny Warren Medal last season.

SW: With the 2018 A-league season well underway it looks like Sydney are on course to defend that league title. How have Sydney performed so far this season?

GM: We have played very well overall. The A-League is a salary capped league so it’s very hard for any club to dominate for long but our style of play is very similar, though we’re a little slower in transition than last year. Statistically we’ve collected one point less than this time last year, scored more goals but conceded more as well, so we’re a little better in attack and a little weaker in defence.

SW: Who are the key players in the squad?

GM: Alex Wilkinson (CB) – Veteran defender, wily, skillful, very, very difficult to get past, marshals the defence with authority.
Alex Brosque (ST)– Our captain, our leader, the glue that holds the team together, finest beard in the AFC
Milos Ninkovic – (AM) -  A magician on the ball, superb passer, highly creative, outrageously handsome.
Adrian Mierzejewski (AM)– Strong, skillful, deadly from long range, free kick specialist, a bald god.
Bobo (ST)–  Record holder for most goals in a single season (16) with 8 games to play, deadly from close up. “Only scores tap-ins".
Our biggest strength is our team unity, these guys play for each other and it shows.

SW:  How well thought of is Suwon Bluewings fans favourite Matthew Jurman in Sydney?

GM: Matty has been a fan favourite since he broke into the first team. He’s a tough, uncompromising and hardworking defender. He hates our rivals the way we hate them. When he left, we were very disappointed of course, but everyone understood what a huge opportunity his move to Suwon was. Matty stays in touch with the fans on social media and he still loves to see us win. I hope he makes the trip so we can say hello to him again. Suwon are lucky to have him, and hopefully later he’ll return to Sydney FC and captain us to glory.

SW: What is your prediction for this game? Who do you think will triumph on the night?

GM: This is tough, Suwon, like all of our ACL opponents are in pre-season and we’re 2/3 of the way through ours, which I think gives us a fitness advantage, we’re unbeaten in 26 games at Allianz stadium and we’re playing extremely well as a team.On the other hand Suwon are very good team with greater resources and able to afford very skilful players.

I think in this game we’ll edge it 2-1, our match fitness and settled squad should see us through. Either way I’m looking forward to it immensely. The ACL hasn’t yet captured the public’s imagination in Australia, Sydney FC will be hoping to change that.

Now, Grant asks and Scott answers

GM: What is the single most important event in Suwon's history and why?

SW: As one of the most decorated teams in Korean football history it would be difficult to pick out a single event. Suwon have won both the Kleague and FA Cup 4 times, the League Cup 6 times, the Super Cup 3 times and the Asian Champions League 2 times making them one of Asia's most successful teams.

But, in recent history, their FA Cup win in 2016 was a pivotal trophy. Until that trophy was claimed the club had had a drought of 6 years without a trophy and the club was on a steep decline battling against relegation and having their budget severely slashed by the club's owners. However, that unlikely victory has seen the club begin to turnaround their fortunes and has seen the club receive some partial investment from their frugal owners. Without that victory in 2016 it is difficult to predict what would have happened but the example of 7 times league winners, Seongnam FC, (who are now plying their trade in the 2nd tier) is a cursory tale that Suwon may have learned from.

GM: Which current Suwon player is the fans favourite and why?

SW: Suwon unfortunately lost their fans favourite and mercurial forward, Johanathan, in pre-season when he transferred to the Chinese Super League in a record breaking deal.

But Suwon fans will now revert back to following club legend Yeom Ki-hun. The veteran winger is the leading assist maker in Kleague history and his left-foot and dynamic wing-play has become synonymous with Suwon and the Korean national team for years now. He is known as 'Yeom Giggs' in Korea, a reference to his flying wing play, and although his quality has diminished as he has aged he is still a major part of Suwon's team and on his day can still produce moments of sheer brilliance.

GM: How well do Bluewings fans travel to away games and can we expect a big presence in Sydney for our first ACL encounter?

SW: Suwon have possibly the most passionate supporters in Korea and are generally well followed (by Korean standards) on their travels. However, in continental competition, unless they are playing an East Asian team their travelling support is in the 10's rather than the 100's. The flight prices from Seoul to Sydney make this trip a little difficult for the ordinary supporter and Suwon may be relying on Korean nationals who reside in Australia to support them in this game.

GM: How are Sydney FC and Australian teams viewed by Suwon fans in terms of team strength and ability? Has the arrival of Matt Jurman changed this view?

SW: Asian football fans in general view the A-league as a strong competition and Australian teams have provided many tough tests for Korean teams in the past. And Suwon fans have recent firsthand experience of that quality as Melbourne Victory beat them to 2nd place in their group in 2016. However, Australian teams are yet to fully establish themselves as a continental force and until they can reach the latter stages of the competition on a consistent basis they will always be regarded as weaker opponents in comparison to their Japanese and Chinese counterparts.

But that is not to say that Australian players aren't well regarded in Korea and there have been a number of superb Australian performers in the Korea in the past aswell as the present. Matthew Jurman is establishing himself as a cult hero at Suwon, and Eddy Bosnar is still remembered fondly at the club also. Alex Wilkinson is another player who has almost legendary status at Jeonbuk and Robert Cornthwaite had a successful few years at Jeonnam.

Korean teams do well to utilise the 3 foreign players plus one Asian player quota that is allowed in the ACL and they often look to Australian players to fill that Asian spot. Infact, Australia is the 3rd most represented nation in the Kleague (after Korea and Brazil) and this may be an area that some Australian teams are lacking. Sydney have only registered 3 foreign players in their ACL squad and the A-league teams may need to look at utilising the wealth of talent in the rest of Asia if they are to compete more often for the ACL.

GM: How do you  think the ACL group will finish up?

SW: Unfortunately, Suwon and Sydney find themselves in a very difficult group that is almost impossible to predict but the key to progressing from it will be home form. If a team can win their home games and pick up draws on the road it should be enough to qualify for the knockout stages. This has been Suwon's Achilles heel in the past but they look well set to fully challenge in the group this year.

Both Kashima and Shanghai have quality in abundance and Sydney are already firing on all cylinders in the league, but I predict that Shanghai and Sydney will lose points on the road and that will leave the door open for Suwon and Kashima to progress to the next round.

Predicted Score: Sydney 1-1 Suwon

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