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Preview: Urawa Red Diamonds vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

AFC Champions League Preview: Urawa Red Diamonds vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

The 2016 AFC Champions League winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors travel to Japan to face the 2017 victors Urawa Red Diamonds in the third round of matches in Group G. Having fell to Buriram United last time out in this competition, the Korean side will be hoping to get their qualification to the knockout rounds back on track but know they will face a stiff challenge. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns speaks with professional football coach and Urawa Reds fan Ryan Steele to preview this clash.

Ryan asks, Matthew answers

Ryan Steele: Jeonbuk had plenty of shots against Buriram but couldn't secure any points in their match away from home, despite a very positive result at home in the first matchday. Does that suggest Jeonbuk will struggle away from home or was it more an anomaly?

Matthew Binns: In recent years, Jeonbuk have often had an annoying tendency to underestimate opposition and it seems this undesirable trait has continued under new manager José Morais who has instilled a belief and, subsequently, arrogance that they will claim a treble this season, despite it never being achieved by a Korean side before. Their recent disappointing results against Gyeongnam FC and Gangwon FC further underline this and it is something the players have struggled with for a while. Furthermore, with often little challenge on the domestic front, the side can sometimes be caught wrongfooted on the continental stage, as was also the case when they faced Buriram United in the knockout rounds last season.

Urawa are certainly a team to be respected and Jeonbuk have sent their strongest side to Japan having rested key figures this weekend. Add in the nationalistic rivalry that manifests whenever a Korean side goes toe-to-toe with their Japanese neighbours and it seems unlikely the North Jeolla outfit will consider this an easy tie.

RS: Domestically, they've had a decent run of form in the last few matches, picking up seven points out of nine. Do you think that will carry over into the ACL or are they simply more focused on getting off to an early positive start in the K-League?

MB: Interestingly, the last three fixtures have seen the manager revert back to his predecessor's preferred formation of a 4-1-4-1, with two of the fixtures including no new signings in the starting eleven as Jeonbuk looked to right their poor results against Buriram United and Gangwon FC. The results were more of a reaction to underwhelming form than a focus on getting off to a positive start but José Morais will certainly be hoping it can carry on into the ACL, a competition which he and the board are aiming for.

RS: Who are the players that Urawa needs to be most wary against? I've personally noticed the scoring of Kim Shin-wook and his height is perhaps a concern, but are there players that have been a bigger contributing factor to his output?

MB: Funnily enough, Kim Shin-wook's two most recent goals in the league for Jeonbuk have come from converting low crosses into the box rather than headers, although it was his head that helped secure the three points against Beijing Guoan. He could certainly be of concern but he is likely to make an appearance from the bench with the manager favouring Lee Dong-gook in Asia so far. Other than Lopes, who was removed from play at the weekend with a slight injury concern but has still traveled to Japan, one player Urawa should be aware of is Han Kyo-won.

Han's name is not always at the forefront of people's minds when picking out key Jeonbuk threats, but the winger continues to be a handful for opponents. Most memorably he scored what would ultimately be the winner in the 2016 final and has been between the first and second team for a while. This season, he has managed to cement himself as the first choice for the new manager, despite two new wingers coming in during the winter and one marquee winger last year in Tiago, all with a claim to be ahead of him in the queue.

RS: I haven't been willing to commit to a scoreline for Tuesday, but is there one in the minds of Jeonbuk fans? Are they confident they can take all three points?

MB: Realistically, a point away from home should be both welcomed and expected but the manager, players and fans alike are gunning for all three. When the side is functioning, they can prove unstoppable, but inconsistent performances recently suggest that there is somewhat of a new-manager teething period still being endured which threatens to have an effect on proceedings here. It will be Jeonbuk's strongest squad that will play, and normally a victory would perhaps be on the cards, but these recent doubts make me think that the spoils will be shared on Tuesday evening.

Matthew asks, Ryan answers

Matthew Binns: While criticism has been levelled at some of their J.League counterparts for fielding weakened sides in this competition, Urawa Red Diamonds have been taking the AFC Champions League seriously and currently sit top of the group with four points. Why does this tournament appear to matter more to Urawa when it does not entice other Japanese sides in the same way?

Ryan Steele: Urawa was the first Japanese team to become champions in the modern ACL format and adopted the title of 'Champions of Asia' because of this. The fans consider participation in Asia a priority and, as such, the team places importance on their continental appearances and performances to maintain that reputation and a certain pride.

While Urawa's aspirations haven't always been met with successful campaigns, their aim to be Asia's best team is the main driving factor and the players have also bought into this mentality.

MB: Urawa Reds won this competition in 2017, yet did not qualify for last year’s edition. How much of this side has changed from that iteration from two seasons ago and has their style and approach varied and can you see them employing a similar strategy against Jeonbuk?

RS: Mauricio remains as the only foreign player from the previous ACL-winning campaign; with the new manager Oswaldo de Oliveira, especially over the last couple of domestic matches, the team shape has changed slightly. With the new signings this season, the team is trying to find some balance; a back four has been deployed recently, with a holding midfielder playing alongside two more 'box-to-box' style players to allow for a lot of overlapping movement.

Up front, they've moved to a pair of strikers, which has yet to really find its feet and the players in that position (Koroki, paired with one of Muto, Sugimoto or Nabbout) are still struggling to find consistent form.

Against Jeonbuk, especially at home, the aim will be to take the full three points and they'll be looking to make a lot of attacks down the wings, hoping to get behind the defence to cross into space. The last two domestic matches have seen a large number of their ball movement down the right side of the pitch and, if they've seen weaknesses on that side in their scouting of Jeonbuk, that trend is very likely to continue.

MB: In our group preview for The K League United Podcast, you highlighted recently signed Ewerton as having the potential to be a key player to look out for. Having now seen him play for the club, do you still see him as an important figure for this match or is there someone else Jeonbuk should be wary of?

RS: In many of the matches he's played, he's been one of the livelier players on the pitch, showing a commendable work ethic and proving to be a core part of Oliveira's midfield plans. I'm still not convinced he's putting in his best performances, though, and I can still see some adjustments as he continues to settle into the squad.

Ryosuke Yamanaka recently regained his place in the starting XI and, if he starts again on Tuesday, Jeonbuk will need to be wary of his free kicks. While he's yet to score from them this season, he has already threatened by rattling the crossbar and has dangerously fast delivery.

MB: Finally, how do you see envisage this match playing out?

RS: Urawa was incredibly fortunate to pick up a point in the second matchday against Beijing, but being a home match they will feel like they have an advantage which will play into their confidence ahead of the match.

Also playing in Urawa's favour is the determination to rectify the poor performance in a league loss last Friday. That should make it a fairly tense match, but recent performances suggest they'll be likely to concede - and a draw might be the best result for them.

We'd like to once again thank Ryan Steele for his contribution to this match preview. If you wish to follow Ryan, you can find him on Twitter here.

2019 AFC Champions League Guide: here

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