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ACL Writer's Chat: Suwon Bluewings vs Kashima Antlers [Semi Final, 2nd Leg]

K League is down to what could be its final match day in AFC Champions League as Suwon Samsung Bluewings host the second leg of the ACL Semifinal down 3-2 to J.League’s Kashima Antlers. To preview the pivotal second leg,  Ryan Walters chats with Football Radar's J.League Analyst, Sam Robson.

Sam Asks, Ryan Answers

Sam Robson: How much of a blow to Suwon’s confidence was the manner of conceding a winner so late on in the first leg, or are they still able to take away the positives of leaving Kashima with two away goals?

Ryan Walters: The fact that Suwon was unable to come away with a win in the first leg wasn't overly demoralizing for the team, but the manner in which it happened obviously stung. Taking the shock 2-0 lead only to concede three straight and lose would be a hit to anyone's ego, but those two away goals could prove crucial in this two-legged affair and everyone in the Suwon dressing room knows that. Having already played three closely contested affairs with Kashima this season and won three straight since the first leg, Suwon look to come in with confidence knowing they have a slight advantage on away goals.

SR: Unlike their form coming into the first leg, Suwon have been on a good run of form since that first encounter, what has been behind that upturn in fortunes?

RW: At its simplest the recent run boils down to two men: Dejan Damjanović and manager Seo Jungwon. Dejan's part of it comes from doing what he does best scoring goals in games that matter. He has three goals in his previous three appearances in all competitions and continues to show a determination to win matched by few in the league. A lot of that motivation of late seems to stem from his desire to add an ACL title to his resume, and in an odd way, losing to Kashima in the first leg may have been an even bigger boost to the Montenegrin striker.

SR: In a pretty strange turn of events, Seo Jungwon has returned to the Suwon hot-seat after stepping down prior to the quarter final. How has this news gone down with Bluewings supporters, and is he a better option to guide the team through this game than caretaker manager Lee Byungkeun?

RW: As I mentioned another reason for Suwon's uptick in form is the consistency Seo Jungwon brings to the side. Returning to his post just six weeks after resigning is one of the most bizarre stories of the 2018 K League season, but it seems to have been the right decision in the short term. Seo has helped players understand their roles better than interim manager Lee Byeunggeun was able to with constant formation and personnel shifts. Seo rightly has his detractors within the Suwon fanbase, but it can't be denied he's been a steady hand since returning. 

SR: Suwon come into this game off the back of an important league game, and victory over Pohang Steelers. Will that game have taken much out of Suwon ahead of this game, or were key players rested ahead of this encounter?

RW: A number of key players were rested with veterans Yeom Kihun, Shin Hwayong, and Dejan not even appearing in the team sheet. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina international midfielder Elvis Sarić did play for 60 minutes and in a post match interview (in the podcast below) said the match was a good motivator heading into Wednesday night. Pohang are a strong team this season and went toe-to-toe with Suwon for the vast majority of the match, but the Bluewings were eventually able to find cohesion late on and seal a victory. A game plan I'm quite sure Seo Jungwon will be attempting to emulate against Kashima.

SR: Score prediction?

RW: Given how closely contested the matches between these sides have been all year, I don't see either side blowing the other one away, but given recent form and Suwon's sheer dedication in this tournament this year, I think the Bluewings will pull it off.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings 2-1 Kashima Antlers

FIFA 19 Simulation

Ryan Asks, Sam Answers

Ryan Walters: With just four matches left in the J.League season, Kashima are forced to fight on multiple fronts as they are one spot out of ACL qualification currently tied on points with FC Tokyo, but with the slightly worse goal difference. How much do you see that split focus playing into Wednesday night? Is the club all in on ACL or are they still hoping to fight on in the league as well?

Sam Robson: Fighting on multiple fronts definitely appears to be catching up with Kashima. At the start of the month they were fighting on four fronts, and have already dropped out of one of those competitions, losing to Yokohama F.Marinos in the League Cup Semi Finals. However the priority, at least since the knockout stages, has been the ACL, and where possible Kashima have looked to rest players ahead of ACL ties. Yuma Suzuki for example has not started any of the last three games, but will almost certainly start on Wednesday. However, injuries are beginning to scupper that rotation policy with the likes of match-winner from the first leg, Atsuto Uchida, and Atsutaka Nakamura definitely missing out. Additionally, some doubts exist around combative midfielder Leo Silva, and wide man Yasushi Endo, both players would be expected starters if fit.

RW: Given the animosity that already exists between Korean and Japanese clubs and the mishap in the box between Kashima’s Kwoun Suntae and Suwon’s Lim Sanghyub last time out, do you think we get to full time with 22 men still on the field?

SR: With any other - perhaps more competent - referee, the first leg would not have finished with 22 men. I don’t think any defence can really be made for Kwoun Suntae and he should have been given his marching orders in the first leg. The game as a whole was very competitive with strong challenges coming in from both sides, and I would certainly expect a similar game this time around. An interesting ingredient to this game is the inclusion of American referee Mark Geiger, who definitely comes with a reputation of being pretty card happy. If he starts dishing out cards early, we could be in for a red card or two. However, in a particularly controversial group game at the World Cup between Portugal and Morocco he produced just 2 yellow cards despite whistling for 42 fouls. It will be very interesting to see which approach Geiger takes Wednesday.

RW: Kashima have been in poor form since the first leg of this Semifinal, winless in four straight and struggling to find the back of the net a bit with just four goals over the stretch. What’s gone wrong in recent weeks? 

SR: There are a number of factors behind the drop in form since the first leg. Firstly, Kashima have played three pretty good sides. They drew 0-0 with J.League leaders Kawasaki Frontale, lost narrowly over two legs in the League Cup to a resurgent Yokohama, and then lost away to Urawa Reds, which will always be looked at as one of the trickiest away fixtures of the season. Kashima will also point to the aforementioned injuries, the players lost to international duty for the league cup games, and also the resting of Yuma Suzuki, which could go some way to explaining the drop in goalscoring. Losing games is never a good thing though and Kashima’s momentum, that they carried into the first leg, has definitely evaporated.

RW: Who do you see as the key player to help pull them out of their current slide?

SR: There are two key players to reviving Antlers. Firstly Yuma Suzuki has been preserved for this occasion, so Kashima will be expecting him to come up with the goods, and his physical presence, work rate, and quality will be relied upon up front. Also Kashima welcomed back Japan National Team defender Gen Shoji to the starting XI at the weekend, for the first time since July. He is vital to the back line, and for my money, Kashima’s most important player. He may be slightly lacking in fitness, but he got through 90 minutes at the weekend, and will look to guide the team defensively on Wednesday.

RW: Score Prediction?

SR: Suwon 1-1 Kashima

Podcast Preview

Along with chatting with Sam, I also got more perspectives from both sides of the East Sea in interviews with J Talk Podcast’s Ben Maxwell and Suwon midfielder Elvis Sarić for the K League United Podcast.

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