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ACL Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Shanghai Shenhua

Wednesday night will see Suwon Bluewings face Shanghai Shenhua in the 2018 edition of the Asian Champions League and with only 4 games remaining in the group stages both teams will be looking to set themselves up nicely with a full points haul from this game. Here, our Suwon columnist, Scott Whitelock, chats with Wild East Football founder and editor, Cameron Wilson, about what Shanghai fans can expect from their trip to Suwon and who exactly is the danger man for Shanghai now that Carlos Tevez has departed. 

First, Scott Asks, Cameron Answers

Scott: How have Shanghai begun the season and what are their aspirations for this year?

Cameron: It's been a mixed start so far. A good away draw to Kashima in the ACL, a decent home draw against Sydney, and a 1-4 home defeat to reigning Chinese Champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super Cup last Monday. Shenhua played their first CSL match of 2018 last Friday against Changchun, a game they are expected to win, but drew 1-1. The boys in blue were missing four key first team players including three defenders so all in all it was not a terrible result.

Expectations this year are low. The club were lucky to win the CFA cup last year and lack the strength to make much headway in the competition. Getting to the knockout stages would be seen as a great outcome. However, this year stability has been the key. Veteran coach Wu Jingui is back for his 4th stint in charge. His appointment half way through last season, replacing Gus Poyet, was not especially inspiring but he has steadied the ship and of course delivered the CFA cup last season. Check out our preview on WEF for more details.

No-one expects Shenhua to come away with much from Korea, a point would be seen as a great result. But the players know that they have yet to win a match this season, in all likelihood they are not going to beat Suwon, and SIPG are looking especially strong this year so this time next week Shenhua may be looking at no wins in six, I think there is psychological pressure here especially for coach Wu Jingui to get a win. Suwon look like an easier game to win than the Shanghai derby so perhaps Shenhua will go for it to try and snatch a confidence-building victory.

SW: Carlos Tevez made the headlines in Asia again this year after his transfer out from China. Will the Argentine be missed in Shanghai or can he be easily replaced?

CW: Tevez won't be missed at all. He was a dreadful signing and a massive waste of money. He was already back in Argentina before Shenhua played the CFA cup final in the last game of the 2017 season and Shenhua won that game without him. That said, Tevez's departure does raise questions about who is actually going to be the attacking threat this year. Obamafei Martins is very dangerous and still a quick and explosive player with a great finish. But he is a little inconsistent for Shenhua and has the odd bad game, usually when Shenhua really could do with a goal. Paraguayan international Oscar Mulero is a new signing this year, he can play anywhere up front but is primarily a wide player. He is small, fast and has good feet and scored on his debut against Changchun in the first game of the CSL last Friday. Shenhua's attack however has not recovered from the loss of Demba Ba who broke his leg in the 2016 Shanghai Derby at Hongkou Stadium. Ba was training with Shenhua during pre-season but the club decided not to keep him and he left to join the Turkish league. This was really unfortunate as Ba is unquestionably the greatest number 9 Shenhua have ever had. But it was understandable as a big question mark hangs over Ba as to whether he can fully recover from his horrific leg break. Due to the cutting of foreign player quotas, giving Ba a place in the squad was just too big a risk.

SW: What can Suwon expect tactically from Shanghai and who is the danger man that Suwon will need to guard against?

CW: Shenhua are going into this game against Suwon in pretty bad shape to be honest. Left midfielder, and the team's hands-down best domestic player, Cao Yunding, is out for a month injured, as is first choice left-back Bai Jiajun, and first choice centre-back pairing Li Jianbin and Bi Jinhao are also out. So the defence is really looking thin and even at full strength it is one of the ropier back-lines in the CSL. Unfortunately Shenhua's best defender, Kim Kee-Hee, a name familiar to some of your readers, was released just before the season started - he's joined Seattle Sounders in the MLS. He was released to make way for forward, Oscar Romero but despite the Paraguayan's promising debut, he is ineligible for the ACL as Shenhua already have Gio Moreno, Obafemi Martins and Freddy Guarin as their three foreign players. Romero is not Asian of course so he can't play as a +1 player in the ACL, whereas Kim could have. However, the truth is that since CSL games now only permit three foreigners, Kim would have barely featured for Shenhua except in the ACL. So his release makes sense in some ways. The end result is the CSL's rule changes have made Shenhua an easier prospect for Suwon.

Except Qin Sheng to anchor the Shenhua midfield or even appear as an emergency defender again. Qin is very comfortable on the ball and has a great passing range. Up and coming Shenhua attacking midfielder / wide man Lui Ruofan is just 19 but has already made a big impact into the squad. He has a great touch and an obvious football brain - he has already shown great awareness of what goes on around him and his ability to pick out team-mates with quick, pinpoint passes is impressive. However for a tall player he is weak in the air, and of course still quite raw and inexperienced. That said, he is one to watch. Mao Jianqing will probably start on the right, his best days are behind him but he's still strong and able to open up space with his running on the ball, he has it in him to create trouble for Suwon but let's see how it plays out.

SW: What is your prediction for this game?

CW: Traditionally, Shenhua are weak away from home and tend to lack fluency or confidence without their famously strong and vociferous home support behind them. They rely heavily on Gio Moreno to create chances, depending on the Colombian's mood, he can sometimes win matches single-handedly and he again showed his pedigree with a headed goal in the first game against Kashima. Apart from that, Freddy Guarin has a great long-range shot on him, expect him to pepper the Suwon goals with free-kicks from danger areas. Obafemi Martins will be Shenhua's lone front man.

I predict Suwon will be too strong for a depleted Shenhua squad and will run out winners.

SW: Score Prediction?

CW: Suwon Bluewings 2 - 0 Shanghai Shenhua

Now, Cameron Asks, Scott Answers

Cameron: Can you give us a quick overview of Suwon's current situation? Hopes for the K-League, recent ins and outs, club strengths and weaknesses, any players past or present CSL fans may remember?

Scott: After a superb winter in the transfer market, where they brought in everything that the team was missing, Suwon started the season well enough with two victories in the ACL. But all the hope and optimism that was built in the months of January and February is beginning to look a little misplaced after 2 home losses in the space of 10 days has significantly set Suwon back. The latter of those two losses, to relegation tipped Jeonnam was unforgivable and shows that Suwon still haven't learned from their mistakes of recent seasons. They are still set up to challenge domestically but they will have to improve and quickly if they are to do so.

Supporters of Chinese football may remember Dejan Damjanovic who was on the books of Beijing Guoan and Jinagsu Sainty a couple of years ago. The K League legend made a shocking move from FC Seoul to Suwon, their biggest rivals, over the winter and although he has struggled to make an impact in Suwon's last couple of games he is the main man that Suwon will look to for goals this season.

CW: What are Suwon fans hoping for going into this game? What in general do they think about the ACL and about Chinese football? 

SW: After the loss to Kashima in the previous round of fixtures Suwon desperately need to win this game to strengthen their position in the group and after Shanghai's failure to pick up maximum points against Sydney the feeling is that they may have the capacity to take all 3 points in this game. However, Suwon's home form has been horrendous for the best part of 2 years now and it's difficult to predict how they will perform in their home stadium.

The huge signings in the Chinese Super League (CSL) have obviously made people pay attention over the last few years and Chinese teams regularly steal the best players from K League. Thus, Korean fans, in general, know the strength that the CSL has and on their day Chinese teams can be unstoppable. However, there is still a feeling that the standard of Chinese players is still somewhat off that of Korean players and without the big name foreign signings Chinese teams would struggle in the ACL. Infact, apart from that powerful Guangzhou Evergrande team of a few years ago, Chinese teams have rarely won the ACL and until they can stamp their dominance on the continental stage Korean followers of the game will probably still have that perception of Chinese football.

CW: Can you recommend places for Shenhua fans to enjoy a beer or hang out in Suwon or failing that Seoul? How could they mix with local fans?

SW: Suwon is a small city but what it lacks in size it makes up for in food, drink and activities. Ingye-dong would be the main place for good food and a lively night life and there are plenty of places to find a beer near the City Hall. During the day, there is a beautiful fortress to visit and you can enjoy views of the city from the fortress walls.

Outside the stadium there is a nice cafe/bar where you can buy beer and snacks and most people will spend a few hours there before kickoff. There's plenty of Tsingtao on tap too so Chinese fans should feel right at home.

CW: What would be a good result for Suwon for this match and what do you think their chances are of getting out of the group?

SW: Before those two home losses I was extremely confident that Suwon would get out of this group, but now I am not so sure. The key to making it out of the group stages is to win your home games at all costs but it looks like Suwon couldn't even buy a win at home on current form. If Suwon lose this game they will really struggle to make it to the next stage and so suddenly the pressure is on.

Having said that, Shanghai have looked flat themselves in their first 2 games and if Suwon do play to the strengths then they should have what it takes to win here. They just have to overcome this home jinx first.

CW: Score Prediction?

SW: Suwon Bluewings 1-1 Shanghai Shenhua

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