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Preview: Gyeongnam FC vs Kashima Antlers

Gyeongnam FC and reigning ACL Champions Kashima Antlers face off for the first of two matches this month that may well decide Group E. To get an insiders perspective on the Japanese giants, Ryan Walters chats with Football Radar's J.League Analyst Sam Robson about the first ever meeting between these sides. 

Sam Asks, Ryan Answers

Sam Robson: Gyeongnam’s opening two games in their debut Asian Champions League campaign have yielded a pair of draws and a solid enough platform to start the group stages. How positive are Gyeongnam supporters about their teams’ start, and how well do you feel they have adapted to continental football?

Ryan Walters: Gyeongnam's in a very interesting spot both in the league and ACL right now. They haven't fallen on their faces and looked out of sorts contending with the top teams in the league, nor the best in Asia, but they have struggled for consistency and flaws are starting to show through. They have some top notch results in the league including a 2-1 win over fellow ACL debutants Daegu FC, and a come from behind 3-3 draw against Jeonbuk that felt more like a win. However, they have also lost to Incheon and Pohang in the league, and really should have done better against Johor Darul Ta'zim in ACL.

Unsurprisingly, the Reds' poor performances have come in the same weeks they have ACL. Their 1-1 draw against JDT was sandwiched by league losses largely due to squad rotation to prepare for international tournament. The same could be said for this past weekend's narrow 2-1 loss at FC Seoul where manager Kim Jongboo left the majority of his attacking talent on the bench until the second half. Sacrificing league points for ACL ones is alright if wins are piling up, but should Gyeongnam continue to just get draws – or especially if they lose to Kashima this week – then the team's focus may shift given the up and down start to the season.

SR: Having conceded 13 in their opening 6 league games, Gyeongnam own the worst defensive record in the K League. Is this a significant area of concern, and how do you think they will look to remedy that and combat the reigning Asian Champions?

RW: Except for a small stretch of games last year, defense has never been Gyeongnam's strongest suit as the plan has been to outscore their opponent at all costs. It's a tactic that worked well in the league last year with MVP Marcão banging in goals at a near record setting pace, but one that has needed some tweaks this season. Gyeongnam is still an attack-minded team, but that's not going to work very well against Kashima. Having played exclusively in a 4-4-2 in league play, they're not likely to shift formations entirely, but look for Kunimoto to stay a bit deeper and look to intercept more than bound forward as he usually does.

SR: Looking down the Gyeongnam squad list, two names stand out to me. Firstly fellow Englishman Jordan Mutch, and also former Avispa Fukuoka midfielder Takahiro Kunimoto. How have they both adapted to life in Korea, and how much of a threat will they pose Kashima?

RW: Mutch is still adjusting to the league, but has started to settle in quite well. He bagged his first goal of the season in the ridiculously entertaining 3-3 draw against Jeonbuk in which Gyeongnam scored all three of their goals after the 81st minute. Not exactly expected to score in bunches, Mutch was brought in more to control the midfield and dictate the pace of the match for the Reds and it's something he is proving more and more capable of this season as his workload slowly increases.

As for Takahiro Kunimoto, he has been an absolute revelation in a Gyeongnam shirt. Still just 21 years of age, the midfielder reads the game as well or better than anyone in the league and has the ability to tear defenses apart with a perfectly weighted pass. Last year he played as more of a winger showing off his pace and control, but this year he's been played more centrally, allowing him to fully embrace the playmaker role. Given Kashima's recent inability to hold a clean sheet, they may want to double team Kunimoto to stifle the Reds attack.

SR: Score Prediction?

RW: I think Gyeongnam will keep things as close as they can in the early goings, but aren't likely to get to half time without conceding. However, with nine of their 10 league goals coming after the 75th minute, look for them to draw things level or at least mount a serious comeback late on.

Gyeongnam FC 2-2 Kashima Antlers  

Ryan Asks, Sam Answers

Ryan Walters: Kashima are undefeated in seven straight in all competitions heading into the match. Tactically, what has been the key to their success?

Sam Robson: Kashima’s current undefeated streak is testament perhaps to tactical familiarity rather than necessarily anything exceptional that they have produced. The have continued this season with their 4-4-2/4-2-4 formation, and have a squad deep and talented enough so that any player can fairly seamlessly slot in, and the balance of the side will not change. In general they have struggled in a number of matches this season and we have yet to really see Kashima at full tilt. Key for me is the midfield two, and especially Leo Silva who is tasked with both protecting a somewhat fragile backline and also providing the drive and creative spark going forward. He has been behind comebacks in the last two league games, and is someone Gyeongnam will have to play very close attention to.

RW: While the winning streak is impressive, the Antlers have only managed one clean sheet over the stretch. Do you see the defense as a potential weakness for Gyeongnam to exploit Wednesday night?

SR: Defence is definitely an area of concern for Kashima. It has been difficult enough for them to cope with the loss of Japan internationals Naomichi Ueda (last summer) and Gen Shoji (this winter), but they also have a series of injuries to their first choice backline. Korea defender Jung Seunghyun suffered a hamstring injury of international duty, and has missed the last two games, while first choice full backs Atsuto Uchida and Shuto Yamamoto are also struggling for fitness. As a result this game will likely see Antlers line-up with no players over 25 and likely two players 21 and under. Gyeongnam will definitely see areas of vulnerability that they can exploit, and I can see this game being very open and frenetic as a result

RW: 30-year-old striker Sho Ito is off to a great start with the defending ACL Champs with four goals in just six appearances. What is it about Kashima's set up that has him fitting in so well in his first season with the team?

SR: Kashima’s set-up really is designed to get the best out of first choice striker Yuma Suzuki, who is another player currently keeping the physios busy, so Sho Ito has had to adapt his game to them, and he has taken his chance very well so far. He plays on the last defender and acts as a poacher and in fairness to him, his finishing has been clinical. Gyeongnam will have to be wary of giving him any space in and around the area, and will have to deny the two wingers the chance to cut inside and link up with Ito, something Shandong failed to do in the opening minutes on Matchday 2.

RW: Prediction?

SR: Gyeongnam 2-2 Kashima

2019 AFC Champions League Guide: here

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