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ACL Writer's Chat: Kashima Antlers vs Suwon Bluewings [Semi Final, 1st Leg]

Suwon Bluewings and Kashima Antlers meet for the 3rd time this season, on Wednesday night, as they face each other in the 2018 Asian Champions League semi final. A win a piece from those games leaves this tie hanging in the balance and with the second leg to come in a few weeks, neither team will be looking to give anything away in this 1st leg. Here, our own Scott Whitelock is joined by Football Radar's, Sam Robson, to preview this crunch game.

Scott Asks, Sam Answers

Scott: Kashima put in possibly the performance of the tournament, in the last round, easily beating a talented Tianjin Quanjian team. How did you assess their performance over those two legs? 

Sam: Kashima put in two supremely professional performances to stroll past Tianjin Quanjian 5-0 on aggregate. Particularly impressive was the control they exerted in the second leg. They were very well organised, allowing Tianjin very few threatening moments in attack, while at the other end they were clinical.

Kashima wasted plenty of chances in the first leg and there was a fear that that profligacy could have come back to haunt them, especially with Alexandre Pato in the opponent's ranks. But Kashima dealt with him, and Tianjin as a whole, with relative ease. I was quite surprised though with just how poor Tianjin were. I expected better from a side which had knocked out Chinese powerhouses Guangzhou Evergrande in the previous round, and I’m sure Suwon will offer up a tougher test.

SW: Mu Kanazaki caused real problems for Suwon when these two teams met earlier this season. He has since moved on to pastures new but has his presence been missed by Kashima? 

SR: Mu Kanazaki’s mid-season departure to join Fernando Torres in a relegation scrap, at Sagan Tosu, was one of the more surprising deals of the mid-season transfer window. It has, however, proven to be a shrewd piece of business for Kashima. Antlers secured South Korean defender, Jung Seung-Hyun, in return, and he has been able to help fill a major void left by the departure of Japanese National Team defender Naomichi Ueda, as well as fellow National Team defender Gen Shoji, who has been out through injury since July.

In attack though, it has been a collective effort to overcome the loss of Kanazaki. 22 year old Yuma Suzuki has taken up the mantle of first choice striker. Like Kanazaki he is very self-confident and aggressive in his style, and he has developed into a consistent goalscorer and leader for the team. He is ably assisted, in the main, by Yasushi Endo from the right hand side and new Brazilian acquisition, Serginho, who scored in each leg of the quarter final.

SW: Kashima are currently are on a marvelous 6 game winning run and look unstoppable. What do you identify to be their main weaknesses and what can Suwon do to break that run? 

SR: After a patchy start to the season, Kashima have really kicked into gear in recent weeks and Saturday’s 5-0 thrashing of Lukas Podolski’s Vissel Kobe, was the latest in a long line of impressive performances. They have continued this winning run, whilst heavily rotating between games, as they are still fighting in the league, ACL and two domestic cup competitions, so that is a real credit to the strength in depth at Kashima.

For Suwon to have success, they will have to take advantage of a potential weakness in the centre of the pitch. Brazilian defensive midfielder, Leo Silva, will be suspended for the first leg. He brings a steel and combative nature to the Kashima midfield. His likely replacement, Ryota Nagaki, is by no means a poor player, but is more lightweight, and will not afford the same level of defensive cover. Also, Kashima have a few issues at centre back. As mentioned earlier, Gen Shoji (Who played in 3 of Japan’s 4 games at the World Cup) has been out since July and is highly unlikely to recover in time for this game, while Jung Seung-Hyun missed the weekend game with a knee injury. Without him, youngster Hiroki Machida would have to step in. He’s talented and has a bright future, but for now is a little naive and prone to a mistake or two, which could prove costly at this level.

SW: When we spoke earlier in the season, you commented on Kashima’s potent counter attack. But with this first leg being played at home, do you think the onus will be on the Japanese team to come out and attack? 

SR: I think Kashima will look to get on the ball and try to dominate possession, especially in this home leg. I Imagine they will keep it quite tight, knowing that losing an away goal would be a major blow to their chances, but they have the quality of player to control proceedings, as they have done in both first legs of the knock-out stages thus far. They will have the confidence of having come through those two home first legs already and will be flying high after a 5-0 win at the weekend. So, I would be very surprised if Kashima do not come out of the blocks strongly on Wednesday. The counter attacking quality is still there and when Suwon do have periods of pressure they will have to be wary of the quick break, but that style of play is more likely to be utilised in the second leg.

SW: Score Prediction?

SR: Kashima Antlers 2-0 Suwon Bluewings

Sam Asks, Scott Answers

Sam: After dispatching arguably the strongest team left in the competition, in Jeonbuk, in the last round, is there a genuine belief that Suwon could win the Champions League this year?

Scott: That victory over Jeonbuk will go down as one of the greatest night's in Suwon's history and anyone in attendance over those two legs will probably take those memories to their graves. But it took an all mighty slice of luck to get them over the line, and fortunately for them, lady luck was shining on Shin Hwa-yong.

Suwon are possibly the worst team (on current form) remaining in the competition and any hope they have of lifting the trophy is slight. But, I have said that in every single round of the competition, and yet Suwon have made it to the final four, and they are there fully on merit.

The spirit and desire shown throughout the squad has been immense and is the sole reason why they have made it this far. They have had a tough season and found themselves with their backs against the wall on multiple occasions, but they have always been able to navigate themselves away from the danger they keep putting themselves into. As we saw with Urawa Reds last season, teams do not necessarily have to be in sparkling form domestically to claim the ACL title, and Suwon's campaign so far feels like it is their destiny to triumph. You can never say "never" with this team and they are fully capable of producing the unlikely on their day.

SR: Despite progression in the ACL, the first leg of the quarter final is the last time Suwon picked up a victory. Is this form a concern heading into this game, or will these ties be seen as one off games, with form going out of the window?

SW: Their form is definitely concerning. But what is more concerning is the lack of goals in the team. Until the weekend, they had gone almost an entire month without scoring a goal and they would have been scoreless in 6 games if Elvis Saric had not scored a brace in the final ten minutes of their 2-2 draw against Ulsan.

Their poor league form has also seen them drop to 5th in the table and they are now out of the running to claim qualification for the ACL next year. Their participation in continental competition next year will be decided on whether they can lift the FA Cup or not.

However, Suwon appear to have written the league off, for now, and they will undoubtedly approach these two games as must win cup finals. They haven't had the greatest year, on and off the pitch, but getting to the ACL final would be a huge achievement. The players will be ready, and having already won once in Kashima this season I am sure they will go into the game believing that they come back to Suwon with a positive result in hand.

SR: Goalkeeper Shin Hwa-yong was the hero in both legs of the 1/4 final, how important is he to this Suwon side, and can he be the difference maker once again?

SW: Make no mistake, he is the reason why Suwon find themselves heading into this game. Without his penalty saving heroics, against Jeonbuk, Suwon would have meekly succumbed to the Jeonju outfit.

Although he is an important part of the team, he has had a mixed season, dropping out of the squad completely towards the end of Seo Jung-won's period leading the team. But, he is undoubtedly the best goalkeeper in the squad, and although he is sometimes prone to making huge mistakes, he can be a match winner in his own right. He is a strong leader and controls his area well, and he is one of the best shot stoppers in K League. If Suwon are to progress to the final, I have no doubt that Shin Hwa-yong will have played a massive role in getting them there.

SR: These two sides traded wins in the Group Stage earlier this year. What do you think Suwon will have learnt from those games, and will they take confidence from the win in Kashima, 

SW: Suwon definitely played too expansively in the first game between these two, when a superb counter attacking display from Kashima saw them triumph 2-1 in Suwon. And it was obvious that they had learned from that mistake when they next faced each other, with Suwon putting on their own impressive defensive performance, as they frustrated Kashima on their way to claiming an unlikely 1-0 win.

Suwon will have no option but to play the same way in this game, and with the likes of Dejan Damjanovic, Elvis Saric and Han Eui-kwon on the break they are by no means out of this game. Kashima may be in form, but Suwon keep showing time and time again that they have what it takes to mix it with the best. If Suwon can keep this game close, while scoring a vital away goal, they will have the belief that they can take Kashima back to Suwon and give them another close game.


SR: Score Prediction?

SW: Kashima Antlers 2-1 Suwon Bluewings

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