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ACL Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Yokohama F. Marinos

AFC Champions League 2020 Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Yokohama F. Marinos
Wednesday evening sees the champions of two of Asia's biggest leagues come head-to-head in the AFC Champions League group stages when K League 1's Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors play host to J.League 1's Yokohama F. Marinos. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns spoke with Football Radar's Sam Robson about what to expect.

Matthew asks, Sam Answers

Matthew Binns: Yokohama F. Marinos were praised internationally for the way manager Angelos Postecoglu led them to the J.League 1 title in 2019. What exactly is it that differs them from the J.League champions of recent years?

Sam Robson: Postecoglou has rightly received praise from all quarters after guiding Marinos to the league title in just his second season. Consadole Sapporo manager (formerly of Urawa Reds and Sanfrecce Hiroshima) went as far as to claim that Postecoglou is ‘changing the J.League’ with the brand of football he has implemented. More than any successful J.League team previously, this Marinos side are built on passing out from the back, taking risks, but ultimately reaping the rewards. Starting from the back, the goalkeeper Park Iru-Gyu patrols high up the pitch, usually outside of his 18 yard box, and then the side will build slowly from the back before bursting through the lines. They have also developed a blistering counter-attack which few teams last season got close to dealing with. They will be a different prospect in this season’s ACL than any other team Japan has sent out to the continent.

MB: Marinos were punished for complacency at the back during the weekend’s Super Cup fixture against Vissel Kobe, with a misjudged passback from Thiago Martins leading to the opposition’s second of the game. Does this perhaps point to a weakness Jeonbuk could exploit or was it merely a blip that will have been corrected by Wednesday

SR: Saturday’s display gave a glimpse into the Marinos side of 2018 which stayed clear of the bottom 3 only by goal difference. That side while exhilarating in attack, shot themselves in the foot time and time again with defensive and goalkeeping howlers. Last season, with a slightly less erratic goalkeeper, Marinos were able to cut out a large portion of those mistakes which allowed them to be so consistent, especially at the back end of last season. On Saturday I’d like to think the errors were just down to a lack of focus and a pre-season mentality and they should switch back on against Jeonbuk, but with the manner in which they play, a high press against them can cause mistakes and could provide joy for any opponent.

MB: Which players are set to cause Jeonbuk the most headaches on Wednesday evening?

SR: Yokohama if given space or allowed to counter will cause any team headaches, and these are primarily caused by the three players operating just behind the striker. Erik off the left, Marcos Junior in the middle and last season’s J.League MVP Teruhito Nakagawa from the right. The two wide-men for large parts of Saturday’s Super Cup were well marshalled by Kobe, but both possess pace in abundance, quick feet and usually an end product. Marcos Junior meanwhile finished level with Nakagawa at the top of the scoring charts last season and is the lynch-pin of the attack. He will drop back and find space in the midfield and link from there and has a canny knack of going under the radar in attacks before popping up with a goal. Those three combined with either Edigar Junio or Ado Onaiu as the focal point are a handful for any defence.

MB: In the past, it was not unusual to see J.League sides field weakened teams in this competition. However, with three J.League finalists in the last three years, perhaps perceptions are changing. How has the return to the Champions League been welcomed by Marinos and their fans, and how important is doing well in this competition to them?

SR: It is true that in the past J.League sides (Looking at you Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Cerezo Osaka) have not focused as much on the Champions League as they probably should have, but recently, and especially after teams saw Kashima Antlers make the Club World Cup final and give Real Madrid a very good game, Japanese sides by and large and taken this competition seriously and three finalists in three years is a very good return. I would expect all three sides left in the competition to be of a similar mindset.

For Marinos, in particular, I think there is a tangible excitement ahead of what will only be their 2nd ACL group stage since 2005, they have been dealt a tough but very exciting group and there is a feeling that this competition will be considered the priority, at least initially this season.

MB: How do you see this match playing out?

SR: Logic would dictate that as the away side going to Jeonbuk you’d set up a little more defensively, look to counter when you can but ultimately settle for a draw from the game. I cannot see Ange Postecoglou setting his side up like that. I think this should be an open and exciting encounter. Marinos will look to prey on any rustiness from Jeonbuk and will probably feel this is the best time to play away to the K League champions, but they too showed on Saturday that they need time to click back into gear, so I can see Jeonbuk creating/being presented with chances themselves. I think this should be great for the neutral, and can see something like a 2-2 draw.

[Listen: AFC Champions League 2020 Preview]

Sam asks, Matthew answers

Sam Robson: How much of a confidence boost has last season’s dramatic K League title victory given to both the club and to manager Jose Morais in his first year in charge, and do you see Jeonbuk building on that success in continental competition this season?

Matthew Binns: Last year's title win was truly a shock given how Ulsan Hyundai let it slip, but the win will have hopefully helped galvanise the players who often cut frustrated figures at times throughout the campaign. The fear would be that the victory will have merely papered over the cracks and that an investigation into why they were off-the-pace could be ignored. It does seem though that the manager and board recognised the need for change and have effectively moved on nearly all the players they had signed in the previous twelve months, bringing in exciting talents such as Kim Bo-kyung, Takahiro Kunimoto and striker Cho Gyu-seung. The concern now is whether or not the transfers have been too wholesale and that this team, particularly the midfield, will need time to gel.

In terms of this competition, the AFC Champions League is always prioritised by Jeonbuk and, after two disappointing exits in a row, the club will be hoping to make in-roads and challenge for the trophy. Manager José Morais has been given the tools for the task, has been allowed to refurbish the team to his liking, and will now have to deliver.

SR: J.League supporters will be familiar with two of Jeonbuk’s off-season signings in Takahiro Kunimoto and Kim Bo-Kyung, but what is expected of new South African striker Lars Veldwijk, and can he be expected to hit the ground running on Wednesday?

MB: It is always difficult to tell with players who are new to the division, or even the continent in Veldwijk's case. His scoring record of 24 league goals in 36 appearances with Sparta Rotterdam during the 2018/19 certainly suggests he could be a major threat if he can settle quickly. Upon signing him, the club and local media have been spinning his acquisition as being one to replace Kim Shin-wook, implying that he may well be employed as more of a target man. If so, he will certainly find service at Jeonbuk, with attacking wing-backs Lee Yong and Kim Jin-su being two of the most effective crossers in the league. The stage is certainly set for him to do well, but there should be no reason to panic if he cannot deliver in his debut match on Wednesday evening.

SR: Since winning the Asian Champions League in 2016, Jeonbuk have not gone past the Quarter Final stage. What have they done wrong in the past couple of seasons, and is there a belief that they can go much deeper into the competition this time around?

MB: Their last two exits were for differing reasons. In 2018, the loss of their goalkeeper Song Beom-keun and central defender Kim Min-jae to the Asian Games meant that Suwon Bluewings were able to build up quite the lead in the first leg. Despite Jeonbuk coming back in the second match, they were unable to progress. In 2019, frustration visibly got the better of the manager and players as they found themselves unable to get the upper hand against Shanghai SIPG. What both matches had in common though were the penalty shootout defeats. Jeonbuk have not won their last seven shootouts in all competitions, but at least they will not have to face one on Wednesday if things end level.

SR: Wednesday’s game should prove to be a very exciting encounter, and given the strength in this Group H, an early win could prove vital for either side. How do you see the game going?

MB: It is difficult to argue with your prediction above. Jeonbuk have certainly signed some exciting names over the winter, certainly names that could pose threats of most sides in Asia, however, they will need to be wary of Marinos' counter-attack and not over commit. Jeonbuk's backline are still relatively strong though, with three Korean internationals making up the back four and sitting in front of the country's most promising young goalkeepers in Song Beom-keun. A draw would not be surprising, and perhaps even acceptable given both the stature of the opposition and the fact that this match is their first of the campaign. Regardless, the talent possessed by both sides should hopefully make for a thoroughly entertaining affair

We'd like to once again thank Sam Robson for his contribution to this preview. Sam is an analyst for Football Radar, covering the J.League 1. He is also the co-host of The J-Talk Podcast, a weekly English-language podcast dedicated to covering all things Japanese football. You can follow him and his insights into J.League football on Twitter.

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