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Preview: Gyeongnam FC vs Shandong Luneng

After a convincing performance over the weekend to open league play with a win, Gyeongnam FC welcome Chinese Super League side Shandong Luneng to Changwon Tuesday night for their first ever AFC Champions League match. Not to be outdone by their hosts, Shandong picked up an opening day win of their own with new marquee man Marouane Fellaini bagging the game winner. Ryan Walters chatted with Steve Crooks, Chinese Football Podcast host for Wild East Football, to get the lowdown on what to expect from him and the other stars at Shandong.

Ryan Asks, Steve Answers

Ryan Walters: Shandong opened the CSL season with a 1-0 win over Beijing Renhe with newcomer Marouane Fellaini providing the game winner. On paper, it seems he’s settled in well with the club. What’s the feeling been like on the ground there? Do you think he’s in for a big year?

Steve Crooks: It was a banana skin avoided on paper, but Shandong struggled to find their rhythm for a lot of the first half. Fellaini had a bit of a dream debut with a smart turn-and-finish for the winner; it's his first game with the side after missing their pre-season tournament. There are very high expectations for him both locally and across Chinese football, so they'll be encouraged to have seen him hit the ground running.

RW: It was only one league game, but did Shandong’s opening performance give any previews into how they might play against Gyeongnam tactically? How do you think manager Li Xiaopeng will set his side up?

SC: Li has been a bit of a 4-4-2 man in his top-flight coaching career so far. It'll be interesting to see if he's a bit more flexible this year and whether Fellaini is used as a traditional centre mid or in a more advanced position. There are some concerns that they might be a bit one-dimensional without the departed Diego Tardelli, who was one of their few players who would get in between the lines. Gyeongnam should be preparing for a bit of aerial bombardment.

RW: Shandong have done well domestically in the recent past, but have struggled somewhat of late and have never done all that well in ACL. What would a successful ACL run mean for their status within the league? Will they prioritize it over the domestic campaign? 

SC: It's going to be fascinating to see how they approach the ACL this year with the increased internal competitiveness, but lower overall standard of play which the regulation changes have brought in. Chinese sides increasingly have to prioritize either domestic form or a Champions League tilt. Shandong have undoubtedly underperformed internationally, but they've not won a trophy at home for a while either and have a genuine chance to challenge again this year. A lot of Chinese football pundits are expecting relatively lean pickings in the ACL this year, and given that Shandong haven't registered an AFC +1 player, they might struggle. They're presumably in a straight scrap with Gyeongnam for second in the group behind Kashima, and I think getting to the knockouts would be seen as respectable, but crashing out at the group stage could be a bit of an embarrassment.

RW: Who do you see as the key man to help them achieve success in the tournament? Graziano Pellè had a good year last year with 16 goals. Is he still their main threat?

SC: For all the impact that Fellaini will have, a lot still revolves around Pellè and his role as the target man. He's scored and set up all kinds of goals for Shandong and is the player his team-mates turn to. If they're to do well in ACL, then a lot will depend on Pellè and Fellaini getting on the end of crosses and among the goals. Also, the big centre-back Gil and talented, but erratic, keeper Wang Dalei doing a good job at the other end.

RW: How do you see this one playing out?

SC: Shandong to rotate their pack but sneak this one with a goal from one of the big guys up top. If they lose this game, don't be surprised to see them throw in the towel and start picking reserves while focusing on domestic matters.

Steve Asks, Ryan Answers

Steve Crooks: Gyeongnam are a bit of an unknown quantity for Chinese fans, with a relatively short history and having catapulted themselves into the ACL for the first time on the back of a couple of great seasons. What approach and style of play should we expect?

Ryan Walters: Gyeongnam are one of the most entertaining teams in K League because manager Kim Jongboo refuses to play anything other than attacking football. Last season when Gyeongnam hit a wall after a strong start, he told the media week after week he wouldn't change the way they approached the game and that mentality has continued to pay dividends. Having Golden Boot winner and MVP Marcão up front certainly helped ensure they could continue to play aggressively, but the system Kim put in place during Gyeongnam's rise to a second place finish is still in place this season and off to a good start.

Without the big man Marcão to aim for, the Reds' attackers have instead focused on getting the ball into danger zones and playing shorter, easier to convert passes across the box as opposed to the long crosses that were more prominent last season. 21-year-old Takahiro Kunimoto has well and truly thrived in this system as both provider and goal scorer. Expect him to be in and around the box causing Shandong defenders headaches throughout the match.

SC: How high are fan expectations running, and how much of a priority is this for the club? There's a perception outside of Korea that fans/clubs don't always make ACL their top priority, particularly given attendances.

RW: Given the fact Gyeongnam were in the second division just two years ago, most fans are simply happy to see them in the tournament. Along with fellow debutants Daegu FC, the pressure on the club to do well in their first go at international football is low, but that shouldn't suggest the club isn't up for it. Gyeongnam had a strong winter transfer window largely in preparation for this tournament even more than the league. Former Crystal Palace midfielder Jordon Mutch even said in our interview with him that ACL was one of the main reasons he signed with the club. His addition along with that of Dutch striker Luc Castaignos shows how much ACL means to the board and their intention in it going forward.

As for attendances, they often aren't indicative of how much Korean clubs prioritize the compeition. Ticket sales continue to be a struggle in league play (in spite of some promising opening weekend numbers) and ACL is no different. Midweek games, especially those kicking off at 7:00pm local time, are extremely difficult for most folks to get to with a working schedule that often sees people staying in the office past 6:00pm. However, attendances aside, there is a significant monetary value for clubs to prioritize ACL with the winners taking home $4 million USD as opposed to the roughly $1 million USD the K League 1 winners receive. If a team thinks they have a real shot at going deep in the tournament, that difference alone gives plenty of reason to do well.

SC: Is this viewed as the key fixture of the group stage in Korea too? There's a general expectation that these two will be scrapping it out for second spot - or do Kashima not have the same mental hold over Korean sides which they do over Chinese?

RW: With returning champions Kashima in the group, it does indeed feel like this is a fight for second place. If Gyeongnam are to have any such chance, then beating Shandong at home is a must. With the aforementioned Mutch and Castaignos brought in almost strictly to compete in this tournament it's unlikely Gyeongnam will throw in the towel after one bad result, but if the Reds drop points at home to both Shandong and JDT, then they will likely shift focus to the domestic campaign.

SC: Prediction?

RW: With the attacking talent on display for both sides, this should be an entertaining one for both fan bases and neutrals alike. Gyeongnam had a strong opening day performance against Seongnam FC in league play, but there's an immense gap in talent between their opponents at the weekend and Shandong, so the Reds will need to up their tempo to have a chance. But, they're feeling good coming in off of a win and that emotion combined with the first ever international football at Changwon Stadium should be enough to see them take all three points.

Group E Preview

Associate Editor Scott Whitelock sat down with our own James Edrupt, Football Radar's J League expert Sam Robson, Malaysian football journalist Keesh Sundaresan, and the host of Wild East Football's podcast Steve Crooks.



Where to Download

iTunes | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Libsyn | TuneIn Radio

You can also catch the show every week on Football Nation Radio at 5:00pm Sydney Time (or 3:00pm for those of you here in Korea).

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