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ACL Writers' Chat: Jeju United vs Guangzhou Evergrande

After a disastrous second half performance last time out in the Champions League, Jeju United face Guangzhou Evergrande in the reverse fixture on Matchday 4 on Wednesday night at the World Cup Stadium in Seogwipo.  The Chinese side is starting to hit its stride, having won its last league match by a score of 5-0 over Changchun Yatai, while Jeju has yet to record a win in the K League.  Columnist Branko Belan sat down with Chinese football expert Jonathan White of SCMP Sports to discuss what is in store for the return leg between the two clubs.
(Photo via news.cn)

Jonathan asks, Branko answers

Jonathan White: How will Jeju approach the game now that they are bottom of the group at the halfway stage?

Branko Belan: Jeju have no choice but to go for it.  They have the benefit of playing at home where they are much stronger.  A win puts them right back in the mix, and increases their potential of going through to the knockout stages.  Jeju were also sluggish out of the gates in the group stage last year, but managed good results in the latter half of the group to progress.  The hope is that it will happen again this year, but Guangzhou look quite strong at the moment, so a lot of things have to come together for Jeju to get the result it needs.  There are a lot of concerns which need to be addressed, notably a lack of finishing in front of goal, despite putting three in the net against Evergrande on the last matchday.  Team chemistry has yet to develop, tactics look very shaky, and a lack of ball possession are other things which come to mind, so there is quite a bit to do before kickoff on Wednesday night.

JW: Last week was win at all costs for Evergrande and they did.  With the boot on the other foot, can Jeju recover from letting the lead slip away and letting in five in Guangzhou, or will they be understandably shell-shocked?

BB: Jeju were two up within the half hour and could have even had a third shortly after, but Alan managing to pull a goal back on the stroke of half-time completely changed the proceedings.  It was quite shocking to see Jeju try to sit on the lead and allow Guangzhou to boss proceedings as much as they did in the first ten minutes of the second half.  Goulart's four goal burst was truly something to watch.  The question of whether Jeju have it in them to recover from such a disaster, coupled with their first loss in the league over the weekend to newly promoted side Gyeongnam FC, makes it even more difficult to be sure if they will have enough in terms of quality to match up with the Chinese giants.  But, Jeju have their backs against the wall now, and anything less than a win would surely put them out of contention for a place in the next round.  

JW: How different will the team be from the one that took the lead and lost?  Was that the best lineup on offer or is there more to come this week?

BB: It is hard to tell how the team is going to look.  Coach Cho Sung-hwan fielded what looked like an experimental lineup over the weekend and it didn't return any measurable results.  It would be expected that Magno Cruz will be back up front in the starting eleven, and most of the side that played last week will likely be penciled in as well.  One player who has been notable in his absence thus far this year is Oh Ban-suk, who was a stalwart in the center of Jeju's defence last year.  He was the element that solidified the entire starting eleven whenever he was on the pitch, so without him, Jeju look like a team very unsure of themselves.

JW: The ten men of Jeju were beaten in the K League at the weekend to cap a bad week - is there any pressure on the coach ahead of this return game?  What are the fans and press calling for the club to do?

BB: The team's performance on the weekend lacked pretty well everything.  They created almost no danger in the final third, and Cho Yong-hyung's straight red for a blatant foul did nothing to help matters.  Whether the media and fans will be calling for his head at this point is definitely questionable at best, as he spent almost his entire playing career with the club, back when it was first known as Yukong Elephants and then Bucheon SK after the club relocated to the Seoul area.  He first took a coaching role at the club in 2013 and became the manager two years later.  As it is still early in the season, a more realistic outlook would be to see where the club stands after the first ten matches in the league before any decision in contemplated, but, an express exit from the Champions League might force the board to consider otherwise.

JW: Beating Buriram on matchday two is beginning to feel a long while ago -- is there time for them to find their stride?

BB: There is time, but there isn't a lot of it.  Finishing second in the league last season certainly gave the club reason to be optimistic ahead of the new campaign, but so far, some of the off-season signings have not worked out very well.  On a positive note, Lee Chang-min was just called into the national side for friendlies against Northern Ireland and Poland later on this month, so if he can continue to produce the kind of performances which earned him the spot, the hope is that others will follow suit and the wheels can start to turn in a forward direction.  It is unimaginable that a club which has been one of the most potent in attack in the past two seasons could come out so flat as they have thus far this year.  Guangzhou is a do-or-die match for them, and they have to produce if they have any hope of staying in the conversation not only for the Champions League, but also to build a foundation for a successful league campaign.

Branko asks, Jonathan answers

Branko Belan: Guangzhou put on a convincing performance in the second half of the first tie at home.  Will they be fielding the same lineup, or are there any changes expected to be made?

Jonathan White: Zheng Zhi played 85 minutes last week but at 38 years old and on the comeback trail, it is understandable that he can’t play every week. The rest of the team should be similar with Cannavaro rotating between the Jeju and Changchun Yatai games to make sure that the subs coming in against the Koreans got a start in the CSL and giving Alan a rest for the first half of Friday’s game. Another three points from Jeju would put Evergrande well on the way to being in the knockouts in May so Fabio Cannavaro will play as strong a lineup as he possibly can and that extra day or two’s rest from playing Friday will help him.

BB: Jeju went two up within the first half hour, but conceded on the stroke of halftime and gave away the momentum.  What do you attribute to Guangzhou's slow start to the match?

JW: They are starting slowly in every game at the moment. The Jeju game was the second in a row where they had gone two goals behind after the opening day derby with Guangzhou R&F where Evergrande came back to lead 3-2 before eventually losing 5-4. In the Jeju game, four of the five goals came in the second half and even in Friday’s Chinese Super League game against Changchun Yatai, a 5-0 win for Evergrande, Gao Lin did not open the scoring until the 52nd minute. You could put this down to early season sluggishness or an ingrained confidence that they will outscore the opposition – a belief that tends to be right, more often than not.

BB: Guangzhou recorded its first win in the Super League on Friday, a 5-0 blowout against Changchun Yatai.  Do you think domestic success early in the season could translate into a run for the Champions League crown this year?

JW: Given that Evergrande have won the title for each of the last seven seasons – and often with some games to spare – they tend towards domestic dominance quite early in the season and then sustaining that all the way through. With that dominance in mind you could make a strong argument for both a direct positive correlation between early season CSL wins and Champions League success (winning it in 2013 and 2015) and it having no effect (not getting out of the group stage in 2016).

Come the end of the season Evergrande it’s unimaginable that they will not be involved in the CSL title race so the key to a truly successful campaign – and the third Asian crown so desired by the board and the fans – is to make sure that they are still in the hunt for the Champions League. They do that by making sure they get out of this group and qualifying as soon as possible. That is probably bad news for Jeju this week.

BB: Jeju is a strong side at home, and are in desperate need of a win to stay in the hunt for a place in the knockout stages.  How do you feel Guangzhou will respond to this?

JW: If Jeju need the points – and they do after Evergrande leapfrogged them with victory last week to go top of the group – then it will be an open game. That will help Evergrande and their attack, in much the same way as the previous meeting in Guangzhou where Goulart’s fourth in particular emphasized the ability to break at speed and Jeju’s defence being caught out. It should be business as usual for Evergrande and right now they are in the business of scoring bags of goals.

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

JW: Everyone would be disappointed if there weren’t another hatful of goals in this one after eight last week and the visitors should provide their end of the bargain. Evergrande to win after the week they’ve had.

A big thank you goes out to Jonathan White once again for his views and insights on Matchday 4 as Jeju and Guangzhou are set to reaffirm acquaintances on the island this coming Wednesday night.

You can read more of his material on the SCMP website.

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