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ACL Writers' Chat: Kashima Antlers vs Suwon Samsung Bluewings

ACL Writers' Chat: Kashima Antlers vs Suwon Samsung Bluewings
After recent woes on home soil, Suwon Samsung Bluewings finally put their demons to rest with victory at the weekend, hopefully putting them in more positive spirits ahead of a must-win AFC Champions League match away to J.League's Kashima Antlers. Here, our Suwon columnist, Scott Whitelock, is joined by Football Radar's J.League correspondent, Sam Robson, to discuss the permutations for this huge match. 

Scott Asks, Sam Answers

Scott: Kashima have had a mixed start to the season and currently find themselves sitting in mid-table at this early stage of the season. What has gone wrong and what can Kashima do to get themselves out that predicament?

Sam: Kashima’s season so far has been the very definition of inconsistency, and without wishing to make too many excuses for them, they have really suffered with the schedule of playing every three or four days and at one time or another thirteen of their twenty five man Champions League squad have been out through injury. Currently three full backs a central midfielder, two wingers and a striker are all missing and all could be considered as potential starters. Kashima have also tried not to prioritise either the League or the Champions League over the other which has lead to inconsistent team selection and a lack of real cohesion, especially in attack, with Antlers only scoring four times in seven league games at the time of writing.

Despite this they have qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League and have the quality in the squad to turn their league fortunes around, so I’m confident that an easing of the schedule and the return of key players will enhance their league fortunes and rescue a poor domestic start.

SW: Suwon enjoyed much of the play and had their fair share of goal scoring opportunities when these two teams met previously. However, some clinical counter attacking saw Kashima deservedly take all 3 points from the game. What did you make of that game and will Kashima alter their defensive outlook now they they will be the home team?

SR: Besides the conceded penalty in the first half and the late Suwon goal, I thought Kashima had put on a defensive masterclass in that game. They held an organised and narrow formation, which forced Suwon to go wide and aim deep crosses, which Gen Shoji and Naomichi Ueda dealt with comfortably for the most part, and Suwon really struggled to deal with the counter attacking pace and directness with Mu Kanazaki, who bagged a brace, being a real thorn in the side of Suwon’s defence.

With Kashima already through to the knockout stages there is a chance they could become a little more expansive in this game, but I think they will feel that topping the group is crucial so as not to meet Shanghai SIPG in the round of 16. Therefore knowing that a draw would be good enough for Kashima to seal top spot, I do expect a similarly disciplined performance to the one which worked so well in the away tie.

SW: With Kashima having already qualified for the next round do you think that the manager may give more fringe players an opportunity in this game?

SR: Some fringe players will almost certainly feature in this game, but this is perhaps more out of necessity than anything else given the aforementioned injury crisis. I’d expect first choice goalkeeper Kwon Sun-Tae to be rotated out once more, with veteran Hitoshi Sogahata continuing his continental duties. The rest of the team though will pretty much be judged on who’s available. I cannot see any player with a slight knock, or coming back from an injury being risked in this game.

Fringe players have been used throughout the group games though. In the away game in Sydney a very much second string Antlers’ side won comfortably, 2-0. No matter who the eleven players are out on the field in this game for Kashima, they will be up for the fight and will not give Suwon an easy passage into the knockout phase.

SW: What is your prediction for this game?

SR: I see this game following a similar pattern to the previous fixture between the two sides. Kashima will look to be tight and compact and counter punch to similar effect as in the game in Korea. The greater motivation is with Suwon, but I think Kashima will frustrate them and hold onto a draw.

SW: Score Prediction?

SR: Kashima Antlers 1-1 Suwon Bluewings

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Sam Asks, Scott Answers

Sam: Dejan Damjanovic appeared to be the biggest signing in the off-season and he has gone on to score four of Suwon’s seven goals in the group stage so far. How was his move across from rivals FC Seoul received, and how important a figure has he become?

Scott: His signing was the biggest story in Korean sports news over the winter and he was warmly received by Suwon fans. But, although he has scored goals in the ACL, he hasn't exactly hit the ground running yet and Suwon fans are still waiting to see the real Dejan.

Although Dejan probably hasn't performed to the high level that he expects of himself, the manager must also be blamed for not playing to the striker's strengths and playing him in a position that is unnatural to the Montenegrin. Dejan has too often been isolated in Suwon's 3-4-3 formation and is expected to run into channels and create chances for himself far too often. The one time that Dejan was paired with willing runners, during an away game to Jeju United, the striker played in a fluid front three with Yoo Ju-an and Lim Sang-hyub and he looked to be back to his dangerous best. He  could have quite easily finished the game with a hat trick had the referee not been in a generous mood for Jeju United.

The crux of Suwon's season will be this; find a way to utilise Dejan and they will go far. If they don't, then they will struggle to score goals this season. It's imperative that Seo Jung-won finds a way to get Dejan not only scoring goals but also looking like a threat from general play too.

SR: Group H in general has been evenly contested, so Suwon’s 4-1 home defeat against Sydney in the last match day came as a surprise. What can you put that result down to, and has the response in the league been positive since that disappointment?

SW: Any follower of the K League will tell you that it's no surprise that Suwon could fail to win at home but it certainly came as a surprise that Suwon could lose so heavily against a team that they had breezed past in match day 1. Suwon were just simply abysmal that night and it is one of the worst performances that they have had in years. They looked clueless in defence and had no answer to Sydney's stubborn rearguard. Sydney had come with a game plan to frustrate Suwon and defend narrowly, forcing Suwon to attack down the wings, an area where they have been particularly weak this season, and that game plan worked down to the T.

Their response since that game hasn't exactly been perfect. They followed the Sydney game with a boring 0-0 draw at home to their huge rivals FC Seoul and although they beat Gangwon FC 3-2, they were outplayed for large parts of that game and were fortunate to come away with all three points. They are now halfway through a ridiculous schedule of seven games in 21 days and their performances are reflecting that. Suwon (on paper) have one of the most talented teams in the league but their squad does lack strength in depth and the players are being pushed to breaking point at the moment.

SR: When these two sides met earlier in the competition, Suwon played quite a measured and patient game as they tried to unlock the Kashima defence. Kashima were able to pick Suwon off on the counter that evening, so how do you expect Suwon to change their tactical approach to this game, knowing that a draw may not be enough to ensure progression?

SW: I expect Suwon to do what they always do away from home and just play their natural game. Their away form has been superb for the best part of one year and they have now won 6 consecutive away games. It is perplexing how a team could be so bad at home but excel so impressively away from it. In fact, over their past three ACL campaigns Suwon have amassed a massive 62% of their points when playing away from home.

The manner of their away victories in this group has probably been the most impressive thing though. They controlled every second of the game in Sydney and didn't allow the Australians any meaningful shots on goal. Their performance in Shanghai was probably their best of the season, and they again controlled for long periods, and should have been a few goals ahead before Shanghai eventually put them under some late pressure. They are yet to concede a goal away from home in this year's ACL and it will take something special to break that record.

SR: How do you think this game will go?

SW: As you've mentioned, a draw doesn't guarantee Suwon safe passage to the next round so they have no option but to go for the win when they travel to Kashima and I expect they will play the same expansive, yet measured, style of football that they produced in both the Sydney and Shanghai games. But, as Kashima have shown this year they have a counter-attack that can score against any type of opponent and this will be Suwon's toughest test of the season so far.

SR: Score Prediction?

SW: Kashima Antlers 1 - 1 Suwon Bluewings

We'd once again like to extend our thanks to Sam Robson for helping out on this match preview. Sam is a football analyst for Football Radar, covering J.League 1. You can find out more about Football Radar by visiting their website, or you can follow Sam on Twitter by clicking here.

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