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ACL Writers' Chat: Guangzhou Evergrande vs Jeju United

Matchday 3 of the Asian Champions League will feature Jeju United, as they travel away to Guangzhou Evergrande to face the Chinese Super League giants, who are looking to find their form following back to back draws in their first two matches.  Jeju will be looking to build on their 2-0 success last time out against Thai side Buriram United, but face questions in front of goal, as they have been drawn a blank twice already this season, including in their league home opener against FC Seoul last Thursday afternoon.  SCMP Sport writer Jonathan White and Columnist Branko Belan had a sit down to discuss what's in store for the midway fixture in this year's continental campaign.

Branko asks, Jonathan answers

Branko Belan: Guangzhou has been one of the premier teams in Asian football for a number of years, but their first two appearances in the Champions League this year have yielded only two points.  What do you attribute this to?

Jonathan White: In short, it's the combination of a new manager and an ageing squad. Fabio Cannavaro has returned to the club for a second time but right now he is in a precarious position. They drew the first two Champions League games – both were games that they were expected to win – with a lack of cutting edge in front of goal costing them in the most recent match away to Cerezo Osaka. 

It all started so well. Ricardo Goulart scored seven minutes into the home game against Thai side Buriram United on Matchday one but the side has now gone 173 minutes without scoring in the Champions League. Goulart's goal was meant to signal the opening of floodgates, instead they were wasteful and punished by an equaliser. In both games so far it's the opposition that were the happier with the point and Evergrande rueing wasted chances. Now they go into the Jeju game and it is already must win for Cannavaro – that's not what they would have wanted given the Koreans should be the hardest team of the group.

Maybe the writing was on the wall in the last few Champions League campaigns. Last year they got through on account of beating Hong Kong Premier League champs and Champions League debutants Eastern. They blitzed their near neighbours 7-0 and 6-0 but drew the remaining four group games. In the knockouts they drew over two legs with Kashima Antlers, going through on away goals, and were level at 5-5 with Shanghai SIPG after two games and extra time before losing on penalties. 

They did not even make it out of the group stage in 2016, a massive failure as the holders, and the squad is not dramatically different from then. The season they last won it in 2015 was also the one of Cananavaro's ill-fated six months in charge. His replacement 'Big Phil' Scolari steered the club to continental and domestic success, which is exactly what the Italian is expected to deliver this year. 

Evergrande are blighted in some ways by winning the Chinese Super League for the last seven seasons. Club captain Zheng Zhi is now 38 and his Chinese teammates are heading the wrong side of 30. 

There is the slight sidenote that the Chinese FA have changed the foreigner quota for the CSL and it no longer tallies with the AFC's 3+1 rule. Evergrande may have a stated goal of playing a fully Chinese team by 2020 but right now it would be hard to win the Champions League with the China national team. Less foreign aid doesn't help the bid for silverware.

BB: What are the keys to Guangzhou's performance on Matchday 3, especially since they will be at home?

JW: The crowd will be a factor, and the Tianhe Stadium faithful were in fine form for the derby. Also, it's vital that Evergrande compete from the first whistle – not even they can will themselves back from two goals down in the Champions League. The biggest factor for Tuesday will be Alan's recovery from injury. The Brazilian scored a first half hat-trick to put his side ahead in the Guangzhou derby but he went off injured. Such is his quality that he will be missed. The goalscoring burden will fall on compatriot Goulart if Alan has to sit it out. That's not necessarily a problem for last season's top scorer. 

BB: Who would you consider to be the key man in the squad this year and why?

JW: The Brazilian pair of Alan and last year's top scorer Goulart are match-winners. The jury is out on the club's new foreign signing Nemanja Guledj, a Serbian international midfielder who joined from Tianjin Teda, doesn't look of the same quality despite his football education at Ajax. The club's all-time top scorer and record appearance maker Gao Lin is an option mostly from the bench but as you might expect from a man with nearly a 100 caps for China he is the wrong side of 30. Huang Bowen and Zhang Linpeng are also names who could feature during the rest of the campaign.

BB: The Chinese Super League will kicked off this weekend with Guangzhou pitted against cross-town rivals R&F.  What can they take from the match as preparation for Jeju?

JW: The opening day derby was a disaster.They were slow to start on Friday and it was strange to see that. While R&F were playing their first game of the season, the CSL opener was Evergrande's fourth after the two Champions League draws and hammering FA Cup winners Shanghai Shenhua 4-1 in the Super Cup. They notched another four goals on Friday but still lost. It didn't help that they conceded twice within the first ten minutes of the match, either.  They will hope for better things on Tuesday night.

BB: What is your outlook for the match?  Could you predict a final score for us?

JW: On paper it's an Evergrande win. But they are clearly struggling for form. It's unthinkable that they would score four goals at home and still be on the losing side but that's where they are at the moment. The pressure is on and Cannavaro needs his players to step up. The hosts will have enough, surely, but football always has the potential to throw up surprises and all dynasties must come to an end. Maybe that is this year for Evergrande. Either way, the narrative makes it the game to watch in the Champions League this week. 

Jonathan asks, Branko answers

Jonathan White: Jeju United were the best of the rest behind Jeonbuk last season, just how good are they?

Branko Belan: Despite winning in the Champions League last time out, the overall performance was not very convincing outside the first twenty minutes. Jeju have brought in a lot of new faces, and so a period of adjustment is needed in order to have a better sense of what this club will be capable of this season.

While the back line has been solid thus far, having conceded only a single goal in three matches, there are still questions up front as to how the Brazilian duo of Tiago Marques and Roberson will fit in. Magno Cruz, who was the team's leading scorer last season, has yet to get on track. He knows he is a marked man, but at the same time, the supply line will have to function well in order for the island club to resume its scoring ways over the past two seasons.

JW: What's expected of them in the Champions League (and domestically) this season?

BB: Ideally, I think Jeju are good enough to get through to the knockout stages at the very least. To be sure, it's not the easiest group, but once Jeju find their stride, they are a team that can put the ball in the back of the net.

Defensively they were much better last season, and so if they can put both ends of the pitch together, it may be possible for them to better their performance from last season, when they were knocked out in the round of 16 courtesy of eventual champions Urawa Reds.

JW: They are a point ahead of Evergrande after two games - how will they approach Tuesday's game? 

BB: If I were to approach the match from a coaching standpoint, I would do the utmost to get the attack in working order. Ball possession will also be key if Jeju are to gain something positive from the match, as they have struggled with their passing game thus far this season.

The biggest problem is that Jeju has not yet developed a flow to their game this season, and that is mostly owing to the number of faces that have come and gone from the club, beginning with the departure of Marcelo midway through last season. Continuity will be key for Jeju to secure at least a point from the fixture.

JW: Who are the key players?

BB: Magno Cruz was the team's leading scorer last season, but the main man to watch out for is Lee Chang-min.  Lee is a midfield general, and, despite his young age, he has developed into a player that the team can rely on, as he is capable of playing behind the strikers up front or dictating the midfield play with the team moving forward. He scored last time out and it will be expected that he will produce much of the same as the Champions League progresses.

JW: Will any Jeju players be going to Russia 2018?

BB: Whether any of the Jeju squad will be included on the final roster for Russia will be highly dependent on their form in the league come May.  If I were to select one or two players to make the trip, Lee Chang-min would be on my radar for the reasons mentioned above, as well as defender Oh Ban-suk, who captained the side last season, although he has yet to appear for the club this year.

JW: Are the K-League sides seen as favourites to lift the ACL?

BB: Of the four Korean sides in the ACL this season, Jeonbuk are seen as the best hope to lift the trophy. After coming back from two goals down to win against Kashiwa in their first match, they dominated against Kitchee in Hong Kong and opened the domestic campaign with a 2-0 victory over Ulsan Hyundai.

Adriano is the most notable signing in the off-season, and has shown well thus far, scoring a first half hat trick last time out in the Champions League in Hong Kong, while club legend Lee Dong-gook continues to impress even at 38 years old.  It's hard to say that most other Korean clubs will be able to compete against them this season, and I believe that will transfer over to the Champions League as well, with the club having last won the title in 2016.

A big thank you goes out to Jonathan White for his insights on the Champions League.  Johnathan is a sports journalist at the South China Morning Post and has been writing about Chinese football for the last decade since moving to Beijing to coach soccer in 2007. He has remained in China since and continues to contribute to a number of publications on sport, food, drink and pop culture from the Middle Kingdom and beyond. 

Some of his work can be found here, here & here

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