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Preview: Gyeongnam FC vs Johor Darul Ta'zim FC

The AFC Champions League debutants from K League and Malaysia Super League square off in what they hope won't be their final international match of 2019. For either team to progress, they will need some help from Group E leaders Shandong Luneng and all three points from this match. Ryan Walters spoke with Fox Sports Malaysia Editor Keeshaanan Sundaresan once again to determine whether or not one of these sides can make it to the knockout round. 

Ryan Asks, Keeshaanan Answers

Ryan Walters: Johor enter in fantastic form having won four straight in all competitions and holding three clean sheets during the run. What's been the key to the suddenly lock down defense?

Keeshaanan Sundaresan: It's been something they've improved on tremendously this season. Maurício took a bit of time to get himself adjusted to JDT's style of play, but he has looked relatively comfortable alongside both Adam Nor Azlin and Aidil Zafuan in recent weeks. I think that has been the key. JDT love rotating Aidil and Adam at the back and in the beginning, that caused Maurício slight discomfort. But he's now comfortable switching partners. There's also the role played by La'Vere Corbin-Ong on the left flank. He has been stupendous in the AFC Champions League this season - both from an attacking and defensive standpoint.

RW: Brazilian striker Diogo Luís Santo has also been in fine form with three goals in the four wins bringing his total up to eight this season. Is he starting to round into the form that saw him bag 34 goals with Buriram last year? Similarly, how much of the JDT attack is going through him at the moment and can Gyeongnam find an edge simply by limiting his chances?

KS: Diogo has been fantastic, but more people are beginning to realise goals aren't the only thing he brings to the team. He's exceptional and holding the ball as well, but his greatest trait is his intelligence on and off the ball. He doesn't just stay in the middle, he moves all across the front three, often dragging defenders with him and allowing players like Safawi and Gonzalo Cabrera a bit more space to attack the middle. So yes, defenders can try and keep a close eye on him, but even when he doesn't score goals, his movement will create opportunities for others to score. That's where it gets complicated for defenders. But as JDT showed against Kashima Antlers last time out, Diogo isn't the only weapon they have upfront. Safawi won't start in this fixture, meaning either Syafiq Ahmad or my pick, Akhyar Rashid, will start in place of him. Akhyar is terrific to watch and he brings a certain rawness to their style of play with his lack of fear on the pitch.

RW: Still mathematically in it, but needing help from Shandong Luneng as the CSL side travels to Japan to face Kashima, even if JDT aren't able to advance will this be viewed as a successful tournament? How much would a win mean to the team and Malaysian football?

KS: The mission has honestly been achieved. To beat the reigning champions on your debut year in ACL and cause plenty of problems for all the other teams throughout their group stage campaign - it's an exceptional feat. A number of years back, it was difficult to even conjure the idea of seeing Malaysian teams competing in ACL; two years ago, JDT got thumped 0-3 by Gamba Osaka in the playoffs. They've come so far since then to not just be in the group stages of the competition, but to also provide a stiff challenge to every team they've faced both home and away. But knowing the club, they would probably be looking to go one step further and qualify for the KO stages. The outcome of Shandong vs Kashima is out of their hands, but what they do have control of is the outcome of their clash against Gyeongnam. The boys will undoubtedly be going for the kill Wednesday night.

[Read - K League Coach: A Study of K League vs Premier League Part 2]

Keeshaanan Asks, Ryan Answers

Keeshaanan Sundaresan: Only one win in last six matches for Gyeongnam across all competitions. What's the overarching factor behind their struggles in recent weeks? 

Ryan Walters: It's kind of a mess all around for the Reds right now. The defense has probably been the biggest issue throughout the season, but the current poor run of form comes down to a lack of bite in the final third and number of injuries to contend with. Key winter signings Jordon Mutch and Luc Castaignos have both missed significant time along with leading scorer Bae Kijong. If that weren't bad enough, arguably their most dynamic playmaker, Takahiro Kunimoto, has also been sidelined with injury. In all honesty, the team simply doesn't have the depth to compete on three fronts and with their FA Cup run recently extended following a surprising 2-0 win over Daegu FC, they may already be calling it a day on ACL simply to rest some players. I expect manager Kim Jongboo to still put out his best eleven midweek, but a loss and exit from ACL wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for them given the current injury woes and need for time off.

KS: Gyeongnam have the worst defensive record in the K League thus far. What's the sentiment like ahead of this JDT fixture? How much of that defensive record will play into the match on Wednesday night?

RW: Defense has never been one of Gyeongnam's strong suits, but it's been taken to entirely new levels this year. They've yet to hold a clean sheet in league play, have conceded the second most shots against in the league (737), and are second bottom in shots blocked in spite of the massive number they're giving up every game. Of equal concern to the number of shots they're giving up is the fact they're second bottom in interceptions this season, which has left the defense stretched and reactionary. Considering JDT have scored in five straight and outscored opponents 8-2 over the stretch, I think Gyeongnam are looking to contain more than outright stop Diogo, Safawi, and company. If the Reds are to pull off a win in this, it is almost certainly going to have to be by scoring in droves and hoping it's enough.

KS: How are the Gyeongnam fans reacting to their team's performances in the AFC Champions League this season? Do they consider their debut season in the competition to be a reasonably successful one?

RW: Anytime a K League team gets a win over a J.League side, it's going to go over extremely well with the fanbase. Gyeongnam's 1-0 victory over the reigning champs in Japan will go a long way to put a positive spin on what's realistically been a slightly underwhelming international debut. Back to back draws against Shandong Luneng and JDT were respectable enough, but could – and probably should – have yielded more points to see the Reds already through to the knockout round. That said, given the injury issues and how well they've competed at this level in their first go, I don't think anyone will be disappointed with Gyeongnam's ACL campaign. Regardless of whether or not they're able to move on (or if that would be better for the team in the long run), going out on a winning note at home would be massive for the fanbase and team morale. With both teams hanging on to a slim hope and playing for plenty of pride, this has potential to be a pretty fun one. Especially if we see an early goal or two.

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