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Writers' Chat: Jeju United vs FC Seoul

The K League season will kick off on Thursday afternoon with last year's runners-up Jeju United hosting FC Seoul, who will make their first of two visits to Seogwipo's Jeju World Cup Stadium this season.  Jeju will look to emulate last season, where they were contenders for the title until fading near the end, while Seoul will but under intense pressure to put last year's disappointment behind them and attempt to get out to a fast start.  I had a chance to speak with FC Seoul columnist Paul Neat ahead of the fixture about strategy, transfer moves, players to look out for, and what to expect from the new season.

Paul asks, Branko answers

Paul Neat: Jeju United have already played two competitive matches so far this season having competed in the AFC Champions League whereas FC Seoul have only played friendly games, how do you think Jeju will benefit from that heading into Thursday's match?

Branko Belan: 
I think there will be some benefit for Jeju having already played two competitive matches in the Champions League, as it should make them a bit more match ready for opening day in comparison to FC Seoul.

However, I was very dissatisfied with Jeju's performance against Buriram, as they had a lot of difficulty creating space in the middle of the pitch, and the passing game was really lacking once they went two goals up, especially in the second half. The fact that the Thais played a very physical game didn't really help matters all that much, but there will be a lot of work to be done on the training ground if they are going to be ready for Thursday. The starting eleven is also quite a bit different in comparison to last season, so it will take some time for things to gel.

PN: There have been a few in-comings at Seogwipo over the winter, more notably the Brazilain duo Tiago and Roberson; how do you see them fitting into the team? 

BB: I am intrigued by the signings of the two Brazilians, as they will be counted on to fill the void left up front by the departure of Marcelo midway through last season. Tiago didn't really do much in the first Champions League match against Cerezo, but I think it has more to do with him needing time to integrate himself into Jeju's style of play, adjusting to his new teammates, new surroundings, and, of course, a new country.

The same is true for Roberson, who I haven't had a chance to see yet. I would think that they will get ample opportunities to play, but I don't see them fitting into the first eleven just yet. Of course, it's not my call to make, but I would gather that as their minutes and performances accumulate, they will become more involved in the team, either as starters, or in a rotation off the bench. At this point, I would put Tiago ahead of Roberson, but it remains to be seen what the coach's plan will be for the two of them early on in the season.

One thing I will say in conclusion, however, is that I am pleased that Jeju have continued the recent trend of signing players from Brazil, as a sign they want to continue to play the attacking brand of football which has made them one of the more attractive teams to watch in the K League the past few seasons.

PN: Captain Oh Ban-seok has been conspicuous by his absence over the last two games, how has the defense looked so far in the ACL wits defensive rock? 

BB: The back line has mostly looked good through the first two matches, but had a glaring error which cost them three points against Cerezo. But, I must say again that the performance against Buriram was for the most part unacceptable, save for the first twenty minutes. The defense was kept on its toes for most of the night thereafter, and they managed to thwart the Thai champions at every opportunity.

Buriram had seven corners and 57 percent of the possession in the match, so Jeju's defenders were constantly under duress. Had Jeju played against a much better team a few nights ago, however, the result would have been much different.  'm satisfied thus far with what I have seen, but for Jeju to be successful this season, the back line can't be overworked as they were on Matchday 2.

PN: Cho Sung-hwan has gone for a 3-4-1-2 in the last two games, do you expect Jeju to line up like this against FC Seoul? Is it the best formation for the players Jeju have?

BB: Yes, I would expect Jeju to line up in the same formation as in the two Champions League matches. I personally am a fan of this particular formation myself, as it allows for balance at both ends of the pitch. I particularly like the aspect of an attacking midfielder playing behind the two strikers, and Jeju has a player who fits that role perfectly.

I think it should be the formation of choice for the team at this particular moment, as it suits their style of play well, as opposed to other attack-minded formations, such as a 3-4-3, where there is the potential of two frontmen running the flanks on the right and left, with only one man in the middle, although that sort of strategy has been known to work for some teams.

As Coach Cho has come into the new season with this tactical approach, I feel it should become the norm to promote continuity within the side, both in terms of strategy and knowledge of which players will be playing which roles, at least for the first third of the season, including the Champions League.

PN: Lee Chang-min is a player I can't help but admire, he has operated behind the strikers or in the centre of midfield for Jeju, where do you see him playing on Thursday and what do you think his best position is?

BB: Lee Chang-min is one of my favorite players at the club. I agree that it is a great asset that he can play well in different areas on the pitch, but, as he is more an attacking player, I would put him right in behind the strikers on opening day.

This will give him the chance to dictate the offensive rhythm as a supplier for the men up front, especially Magno, but also as a distributor in the possession game, and in particular the counter, where Jeju have shown over the past two seasons they can be quite deadly.

PN: Finally, how do you see the game playing out? What are your predictions?

BB: Although Jeju have a few matches under their belts already, the Champions League and the K League are two different competitions. It certainly helps that Jeju open the season here at home, but I would not expect them to come flying right out of the gate just yet.

As with every new season, there will be the potential to err on the side of caution a bit, and so I don't expect to see Jeju throw all guns into attack just yet. I would think it would be a more controlled performance where hopefully play will be balanced, and critical mistakes can be kept to a minimum.  As already mentioned, I see them being most likely to hit on the counter, but they could also be prone to it if the defence fails to hold well.

All things considered, although I would love to see Jeju open the season with a win, I will be realistic and call for a 1-1 draw. Jeju don't seem to have the magic against Seoul as they do against some other clubs in the top flight, but, all will be on show once the blast of the referee's whistle signals the start to another K League campaign on Thursday afternoon.

Branko asks, Paul answers

Branko Belan: How much will Dejan's departure hurt the club this season, especially knowing the club didn't sign a true striker to replace him?

Paul Neat: Losing a player of Dejan's quality would hurt any team, even more so because it was almost as if he was Mr. FC Seoul. The fans were extremely angry at first but this is football and life goes on; the team can't afford to dwell on what's happened and should be looking forward. 

BB:  The team enters the new season with a lot of question marks. Can you identify three factors which could lead the club in a positive direction?

PN: Certainly a good start to the campaign, first and foremost. Getting some good results in the first few rounds would help to steer the club in a positive direction because at the moment the general mood amongst the supporters appears to be quite low. A win on opening day down in Jeju would be most welcomed I am sure, and would go a long way in encouraging some of the fans who have been angered by the sale of key players to come back and support their team. Getting the fans back onside is really important and needs to be something that happens sooner rather than later.

There have been a good number of key players leaving but FC Seoul manager Hwang Sun-hong has always maintained that this winter was a period of transition and rebuilding. If the new players that Hwang has brought in hit the ground running then I am sure the under-fire gaffer will feel that his decisions have been justified, although I'm sure somewhat relieved also. Anderson Lopes is new to the League but Evandro did well for Daegu last season, if those two in particular can find their shooting boots then the fans will forget all about the negativity with new heroes in town.

Thirdly, the manager needs to have a long hard look at himself and stop blaming others for the team's misfortunes. If he can put personal feelings to one side and think about the good of the team and the club he might just be able to create an atmosphere within the dressing room akin to the one which he had at Pohang Steelers where he did the double in 2013. Thus far, despite winning the league in 2016, this isn't the Hwang Sun-hong that FC Seoul fans were expecting.

BB: What is to be expected this season in your honest opinion?  Are those expectations realistic?  Why or why not?

PN: First and foremost the team needs to get back into the AFC Champions League. They deservedly missed out last season, despite their destiny being in the own hands heading into the last Super Match of 2017. It would be premature to talk about title challenges but Seoul should be looking to finish at least third and getting into ACL contention and then see what happens thereafter. I think that's definitely a realistic expectation.

BB: The clubs met a total of four times last season - three times in the regular season and once in the championship round.  The first two matches were goalless draws while Seoul won the other two matches.  Do you think this will also be the trend this year?

PN: I am sure FC Seoul fans will be hoping for a record similar to that one! It would be difficult to say at this stage but if Seoul can at least get draws away from home and pick up wins in front of their own supporters against the bigger sides, Jeju United included, then Seoul might find themselves in contention. Jeju are a good team and have already played some competitive matches this season whereas Seoul haven't so United might feel that they are the more prepared team for this first match.

BB: Could you give us your predictions for the match?

PN: I think Seoul will set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation and will be looking to attack. With Evandro, Anderson Lopes and Park Chuyoung in Seoul's forward line, it may hint at a more fluid front three and could be hard for Jeju to deal with I will go for a 2-1 Seoul win with a debut goal for Evandro. I'd also expect debuts for Cho Young-wook and Kim Seong-jun whether it be from the start or off the bench.

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