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ACL Writers' Chat: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Tianjin Quanjian

Tuesday evening sees K League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors play host to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian in the third round of AFC Champions League group matches. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns spoke with Wild East Football and Offside.HK editor Chris Lau about what to expect when these two sides meet in Jeonju.

Matthew asks, Chris answers

Matthew Binns: Last time out in this competition, Tianjin Quanjian fought back from a goal down to earn a draw away to Kashiwa Reysol, with an 88th minute Alexandre Pato equaliser ensuring the Chinese side left with a share of the spoils. In your opinion, was a point a fair reflection of their performance?

Chris Lau: After the expectations and hype, Tianjin Quanjian did well to come out with a draw as Kashiwa Reysol had a large share of the possession and the J.League side should have scored a penalty after defender Li Yiming almost took off Reysol's Ataru Esaka’s head with his mistimed clearance in the 26th minute. The subsequent penalty was taken by Cristiano but was saved to Tianjian’s relief. That man, Cristiano, did give the home side the lead in the 52nd minute with a wonderful volley which gave Zhang Lu in the Tianjin goal no chance at all. Pato ended up salvaging the game for Tianjin Quanjian in the 88th minute when he lashed home a shot which came in off the post.

The match ended 1-1 and I believe it was a fair result for both sides with the Chinese Super League side probably the happier of the two given the failed penalty and the attacking intent of Kashiwa from the off as they had superior numbers in terms of passing statistics. For two teams, who were still in pre-season when the match was played, this was probably a good way to gauge their fitness levels and ease into their respective new domestic seasons. It will also allow manager, Paolo Sousa, the chance to see the strength and depth of his squad before the major grind of the Chinese Super League.

MB: Tianjin Quanjian will also be playing away for this round, with Jeonju World Cup Stadium proving a tricky stadium for many visitors in recent years. How do you see them approaching this match in terms of formation and personnel? Will there be any changes to counter specific threats?

CL: Tianjin lined up with a 4-3-3 formation when they played against Kashiwa Reysol. I would expect them to line up in a similar vein against Jeonbuk. As Jeonbuk like to press a high line and have many attacking options, Tianjin may have to pack out their midfield a little more and start in a 4-4-2 or 3-4-3. In the last match against Reysol, Pato was left on the bench for the start. This was seen as a wake up call and punishment for losing his temper after  being subbed off in the previous game; it worked the trick as the Brazilian scored the crucial equaliser. Sousa would probably start Pato against Jeonbuk as Pato is a big game player and would thrive in these types of high pressure environments.

Tianjin have a wealth of attacking talent are well balanced to the extend that their midfield and defence are also established. The Koreans also have the attacking threat of Adriano, Alves, Lee Dong-gook, Kim Shin-wook and players like Lee Jae-sung pulling the strings in midfield, so Tianjin will have to up their game to meet this attacking power.

MB: A lot of the attention from Jeonbuk supporters will be perhaps on Tianjin Quanjian’s headline foreign players Alexandre Pato, Anthony Modeste, Axel Witsel and former Jeonbuk defender Kwon Kyung-won. In regards to the domestic talent though, who should the home side be watching out for?

Tianjian Quanjian have a very balanced side and amongst the overseas super stars are also well known Chinese players such as Sun Ke and Zheng Dalun. Sun Ke is a striker who is well known not only for his skills and goals but also for leaving Chinese Super league side Jiangsu Sainty and dropping into Chinese League one to join his current team. The drop has proven to be worthwhile as Tianjin Quanjian won Division 1 under Fabio Cannavaro and they finished an impressive third in the last CSL campaign. Though much more is expected of Sun Ke whose five goal haul in the league was seen as a disappointment by many.

Winger/striker Zheng Dalun is a name for the future and the 24 year old has become a regular for Tianjian and his pace is seen as a threat for many sides. Last season, he hit eleven goals in all competitions and will be hoping to continue this form into this season.  The overseas contingent and players such as Sun Ke and Zheng Dalun have formed a good working balance and this showed from their domestic results last year when they surprised many to finish so high up in the table.

MB: Speaking of their foreign players though, all four stayed with the club after helping the team claim third spot in the Chinese Super League last season. How valuable were they to Tianjin’s campaign last year and who can you see giving Jeonbuk the biggest headache?

CL: Players like Alexandre Pato and Axel Witsel are experienced and truly star quality and with their efforts, Tianjin shook up the league last season and a third place finish was seen as truly respectable to the extent that Fabio Cannavaro was lured away to Evergrande for another shot at the job.

Seen as a great player who has never fully fulfilled his potential, Pato did struggle initially with the weight of expectations and adjustment to life in China but he seems to have settled and he found his feet and hit home a good return of 15 goals from 24 starts. Axel Witsel, the Belgium international, also made headlines when he moved from Europe to Tianjin and yet, he has also thrived and done well and with his fast thinking mind and feet, has helped to unlock many defences in the CSL.

Anthony Modeste is another overseas player making a huge impact for Tianjin and officially on a two year ‘loan’ from Köln in the Bundesliga, the much travelled striker has proven his worth in the CSL last season with goals against sides like Guangzhou Evergrande and Changchun Yatai. Modeste not only is skilful on the ball, he is strong and fast and almost the complete striker who seemingly can reach even greater heights. In defence, and maybe a secret weapon, is the former Jeonbuk player, Kwon Kyung-Won, who now takes to the field for Tianjin as a solid centre back and has represented South Korea at senior level.

Given Tianjin’s success last season, the overseas contingent settled well and can only build on further for the new CSL season and Paolo Sousa will be looking to better last season’s third place finish. Jeonbuk would do well to counter the attacking threats of Witsel, Modeste, Pato, Sun Ke and Zheng Dalun.

MB: Finally, how do you see this match playing out?

CL: Tianjin and their balanced squad of players will look to make maximum impact with their attacking options and I believe will look to take the game to the Koreans. In the last game against Kitchee, Jeonbuk’s simple passing game (both long and short) took Kitchee apart but this star-studded Tianjian side will be a different preposition altogether. I expect a high scoring draw and with both sides taking home the spoils.

Chris’ Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-2 Tianjin Quanjian

Chris asks, Matthew answers

Chris Lau: Jeonbuk ran rampant against Kitchee whilst they experimented and changed their formation and still came out on top; do you think they will change their approach again with regards to the Tianjin match?

Matthew Binns: I think Choi Kang-hee will have his strongest Jeonbuk squad available for this match given that the Korean teams in the Champions League played their league openers two days earlier than the rest of the league to give them preparation time. That, combined with facing the touted to struggle Incheon United the following Saturday, should mean there is no reason why the Jeonbuk side that plays will be anything less than their full strength iteration.

Against Ulsan Hyundai last week, Jeonbuk set up in a 4-4-2 to try and build the expected partnership between Kim Shin-wook and Adriano, but both looked a little rusty, with Adriano still coming back to match fitness. Once again, it was Choi Kang-hee's substitute bench that bailed the league champions out, with Lee Dong-gook and Han Kyo-won coming on to win the match. However, I do imagine the manager will opt for a five man midfield against Tianjin Quanjin to try and win control of the middle third, most likely in a 4-1-4-1 formation.

CL: Tianjin boast a star studded attacking line-up. Do you think the Jeonbuk defence will be able to hold them off? 

MB: At present Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors boast four defenders all playing at international level for South Korea, with three of them currently in the starting eleven for their country. The back line of Kim Jin-su, Kim Min-jae, Hong Jeong-ho and Lee Yong, not to mention Choi Chul-soon on the bench, all have international experience, all expected to be in Russia in the summer, and will hopefully be up to the task that is put in front of them. With Hong's experience in China also, having spent two seasons at Jiangsu Suning, Tuesday's opponents should not be that much of a mystery to the centre back, though unfortunately he will have to pass on his advice to his teammates seeing as he is suspended for this fixture due to yellow card accumulation.

CL: Lee Dong-gook is still playing at the highest level. What is the secret to his longevity? 

MB: He is remarkable, isn't he? Every time he is written off, Lee Dong-gook seems to find yet another way to answer his critics, with his second half display against Kashiwa Reysol being a testament to that. He was at it again last week, scoring the opener before a stupendous assist to create the second in a 30 minute cameo appearance to give Jeonbuk a 2-0 victory in the K League opener against Ulsan.

Last season saw the 38 year-old finally accept his fate as an impact substitute and became all the better for it. In previous seasons he had still wanted to be the centre of attention as any hungry striker does, but by managing his playing time, he worked his way back in to the Korea squad for a shock recall in South Korea's crucial final qualifying games, though admittedly his role was perhaps more advisory. Further to this, he broke double digits once more whilst also clocking up his 200th K League goal in the process. Despite his contract coming to an end last year, he opted for a one year renewal as he felt he still had something to offer, and so it has proved with three goals in this competition so far. He makes 30-something football writers still believe they have a chance at the big time.

CL: Currently, Jeonbuk dominate the K-league and fare well in the Asian champions league. Is this the peak of their potential or can they go on further? 

MB: Their league dominance will go on for as long as the Hyundai Motor Company is willing to fund them, which at present seems to a greater extent than any other team in the division. Whilst opposition fans are understandably quick to bemoan the wealth gap (especially those who support citizen-owned clubs), the unadmittable truth is the large conglomerates who back their closest rivals will not fund their sides to the same extent, despite theoretically having enough resources to draw upon if they so chose. Ultimately Hyundai Motors yearns for sporting success and achieving this success is rewarded in earnings to reinvest in new players, improved player contracts and state of the art training facilities. While it does kill the competition in the league, it is difficult to both be upset about Jeonbuk's spending and also bemoan the lack of investment in the division. You could also not likely apply financial fair play rules effectively as it is quite probable Jeonbuk could already be passing them given their sustained success in recent years, and it would only pull up the drawbridge on any other club who decides to make an attempt to catch up by spending heavily in the future. It's the same scenario if you were to simply cap spending.

Whilst the K League may look wrapped up for the forseeable future, Asia has often escaped Jeonbuk, although their 2016 showing displayed a hunger and level worthy of their consideration in the upper echelons of the continent. If they had been given admission into the 2017 edition we could have seen them build on that side. Instead, they cut costs and have rebuilt this winter with the aim of making up for lost time. Asian success is what is desired, but you need only look as far as the Chinese Super League to see what lack of regular domestic competition can do to a team. Perhaps there will be success in the short term, but unless other K League clubs are willing to try and match Hyundai Motors in terms of spendings, Jeonbuk will not ever truly break their bank account for Asia as domestic success at least seems guaranteed.

CL: How do you see the match playing out?

MB: While Tianjin Quanjin certainly boast a fearful attack, it would feel foolish to underestimate the Jeonbuk offensive line because of the comparison of forward options. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors feel very much a team, with players the best in their division in nearly every position. This, combined with playing on home soil where they are very rarely defeated, could add up to a well earned win for the North Jeolla team.

Matthew's Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-0 Tianjin Quanjian

We would like to once again extend our thanks to Chris Lau for joining us on this match preview. Chris is an editor and photographer at Wild East Football and Offside.HK. You can follow Chris on Twitter by clicking here, and for more information on the Chinese Super League, you can get regular information from Wild East Football on social media via their Twitter page.

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