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ACL Writers' Chat: Buriram United vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

K League's reigning champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors travel to face last year's Thai League victors Buriram Untied in the AFC Champions League Round of Sixteen first leg. With both side's leading their domestic divisions this season too, the two clubs will be hoping to also extend their stay in Asia's biggest club competition. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns spoke with ESPNFC's Paul Murphy about what to expect on Tuesday evening.

Paul asks, Matthew answers

Paul Murphy: Thai clubs have put out South Korean clubs at the group stage for two years in succession. Is this a sign that Thai clubs are improving or that Korean clubs are not taking the ACL games seriously enough?

Matthew Binns: I think it is perhaps an indicator that Thai sides are getting better, with noticeably improved performances each season. Whilst last year, there were a number of excuses as to why K League sides did not perform in the competition, including the absence of then reigning champions Jeonbuk, Korean sides in the tournament are nearly always playing their strongest eleven and often take opportunities to rotate players at weekend's prior to continental matches. The prize money on offer in this competition is far greater than anything the league can muster up, and many sides see this trophy as a matter of regional pride.

Therefore, I would argue it is not perhaps a question of whether or not they are taking the competition seriously, but is the league stagnating whilst others in Asia continue to flourish? Clubs and governing bodies need to invest in sides, attract supporters, and many other things to ensure one of Asia's strongest league's doest not get left behind.

PM: How does this year’s Jeonbuk side compare to the team that lifted the ACL trophy in 2016?

MB: On paper, this team is certainly stronger than their 2016 counterparts, having spent their year out of the competition forming one of the league's stingiest defences and transferring that to all competitions this season. They have also acquired proven goalscoring talent in the likes of Adriano, and have been managing Lee Dong-gook's minutes so effectively that the Korean National Team manager Shin Tae-yong was forced to come out and say that the 39 year-old will not be going to the World Cup in Russia despite scoring nine goals across all competitions in this campaign.

However, Jeonbuk were always going to struggle to replace goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae and winger Leonardo from that squad, who after 2016 both achieved legendary status at the club, but the Korean outfit have made valiant attempts with the signings of Song Beom-keun and Tiago respectively. The side who won this trophy eighteen months ago was one many Jeonbuk fans were fond of though, but given time, this side has the potential to eclipse it.

PM: Jeonbuk have established a commanding lead at the top of the K League. Does this mean they are more or less likely to put all their energy into the later rounds of the ACL?

MB: It certainly looks that way, with the manager fielding mostly a reserve side on Saturday in a local derby, featuring just four substitutes, two of which were goalkeepers. At present, there seems no domestic side who can match them across the course of a full season. They have such impressive depth that, despite an injury crisis to a number of defenders, have still managed to collect nine clean sheets across twelve league games. The only way they can prove themselves further is to consistently reach the latter stages of this competition, and they will be hoping that this year they can reclaim a trophy they were not allowed to defend in 2017.

PM: Which of Jeonbuk’s attacking players are the biggest threat to Buriram’s defence?

MB: With most of the first team traveling to Thailand before the weekend's league fixture, it seems the manager will be relying on the likes of either Adriano, Kim Shin-wook or potentially both to spearhead the attack. However, Jeonbuk's main attacking threat at present is that of Ricardo Lopes. The Brazilian winger is comfortable on either flank and has been looking in good form of recent, with three goals and two assists in his last four league appearances. He is capable of stretching stubborn defences and also boasts reasonable pace, potentially causing a headache for Buriram on Tuesday.

PM: Will Jeonbuk be happy to take a draw in Thailand and finish the job at home or will they be going all out to win and kill the tie in Buriram?

MB: The team have approached this fixture in an ideal manner, building up a big enough lead in the league to allow manager Choi Kang-hee to rest players for domestic commitments ahead of Tuesday. There are still some issues at the back however, with national team players like Kim Min-jae and Kim Jin-su missing in central and left defence respectively. The backup options though have performed well and should be up to the task, but Buriram might be their toughest test in a while. At least a score draw would satisfy Jeonbuk enough though, and their formidable home form should see them through.

Matthew’s Predicted Score: Buriram United 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Matthew asks, Paul answers

Matthew Binns: This is currently Buriram’s best performance in the competition since 2013 where they reached the quarter finals. What is the feeling towards the competition in Thailand and have people been impressed with the side’s performances so far?

Paul Murphy: The competition still has a lot prestige in Thailand as it’s a great opportunity for Thai League clubs to raise their profile and to try and prove that they belong with Asia’s best. Football fans here have been particularly impressed with the resilience shown by Buriram, especially after losing at home to Jeju on Matchday 2. Digging out two draws against Guangzhou was really impressive, as was travelling to Jeju and edging the win they needed to progress.

The home victory over Cerezo Osaka was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that Cerezo fielded a second string, but Buriram have still upset the odds by finishing ahead of teams from South Korea and Japan.

MB: Buriram striker Diogo is the current top scorer in the Thai Premier League with fourteen goals in thirteen games but has failed to transfer this to the AFC Champions League so far. Is it the team’s approach in this competition or the different playing style of sides as to why this form has not carried across?

PM: I think it is mainly the way the team approaches ACL games. They expect to come under more pressure than they’re used to in Thailand and Diogo acts more as an outlet than an out-and-out striker.

There is much more to Diogo’s game than goals and he can often be seen dragging defenders out to the wings where he can also be very effective. He does score more goals in the Thai League with defences being weaker than in the ACL but it would certainly be misleading to see his lack of ACL goals as a sign that he may be out of his depth.

MB: Like their Korean counterparts, Buriram United enter this match whilst also trying to maintain their spot at the top of their domestic table. Will commitments at home conflict with the continental competition or are Buriram well equipped to deal with both?

PM: Recently, Buriram looked to be tiring as they lost to Chiang Rai United and Sukhothai, with an unconvincing win at home to Nakhon Ratchasima sandwiched in between. However, Friday’s 4-0 thrashing of bitter rivals Muang Thong United suggests they are over their mini slump and should have renewed focus for the clash with Jeonbuk. They will be top of the Thai League table at the start of the tie and the win over Muang Thong ensures morale will be high.

MB: Who should Jeonbuk be keeping an eye out for when these two sides meet?

PM: Diogo is obviously the main threat with his movement and his eye for goal. But Korrakot Wiriyaudomsiri is also one to watch for his set piece deliveries. The left-back is dangerous from free kicks and corners and his decisive strike at Jeju United showed that he can get forward to support the attackers. The 30-year-old is having a late career renaissance at Buriram and has really flourished this year.

MB: Jeonbuk are favourites for this tie given their track record in the competition. Can you see Buriram causing an upset in the first leg on Tuesday evening?

PM: Getting to this stage is always an achievement in itself for a Thai club, while exiting the tournament in the last 16 would be a failure for Jeonbuk. I can see this influencing the levels of motivation in this tie and, while Buriram may sneak a draw in this leg, it is highly likely that Jeonbuk will win the tie over two games. Buriram’s battling qualities and home advantage may see them keep the tie alive this week if Jeonbuk are happy with that scoreline.

Pauls Predicted Score: Buriram United 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

We would once again like to extend our thanks to Paul Murphy for joining us on our site once more to help preview the AFC Champions League games. Paul is a football writer with a focus on Thai and Southeast Asian football, writing for the likes of ESPNFC, the AFC and others. You can keep up to date on Paul's thoughts on the game through his Twitter profile and over on ESPNFC's Thailand football blog.

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