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ACL Preview: Sydney FC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

AFC Champions League Preview: Sydney FC vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

After both receiving humblings at the hands of Yokohama F. Marinos, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Sydney FC will be looking to kickstart their AFC Champions League campaign when the K League Champions travel down under to face their A-League counterparts. Our Jeonbuk columnist Matthew Binns spoke with All Sides of the Harbour's Jamie Dunkin to preview the match.

Jamie asks, Matthew answers

Jamie Dunkin: What are the expectations like for Jeonbuk in the ACL this year, having won the competition twice before and after three straight K League title wins?

Matthew Binns: The board have set the expectations of winning the ACL for the last few campagins, matching their target with a generous transfer kitty season upon season. Last year it was felt that the Jeonbuk side assembled should have made it beyond the Round of 16 comfortably but the loss was chalked up as the players adjusting to life under a new manager having previously been helmed by one of Korean football's most successful coaches. This season, the board may prove less forgiving, though the difficulty of the group has at least helped get somewhat of an excuse in early. Furthermore, Jeonbuk arguably do not need to prove themselves in the K League either, however, this year is somewhat of an exception as they are set to make history with an eighth title if they can lift the division trophy once more, so there will also be pressure to deliver domestically once again.

JD: Jeonbuk faced an on-paper tight 2-1 loss in their first game. What were the positives taken from the loss?

MB: There were certainly far more negatives to draw than positives, but the performance of the younger players such as goalkeeper Song Beom-Keun, creative midfielder Takahiro Kunimoto and striker Cho Gue-seung gave something for the fans to hold onto as they left the ground. Song and Cho were part of the Korea Republic squad that lifted the U23 Asian Championships last month, whereas Kunimoto signed from Gyeongnam FC last season after two promising years at the club. These three have all travelled to Sydney and will be looking to demonstrate their worth, especially after the more experienced players were left looking immature and lacklustre in the Marinos match.

JD: How will the K League’s delayed start affect the Jeonbuk players, if at all in their preparation?

MB: Jeonbuk have been confined to indoor training this last week before flying out to Sydney on Saturday evening. Arguably they will be fresher yet no matches against differing opposition, competitive or otherwise, have been played since the mid-February Champions League opener. There will have been little opportunity for the manager to properly assess his preferred eleven for the year which could cause some rustiness on the pitch, especially given the number of new signings made in the winter still settling. That said, most East Asian teams face this issue annually regardless of this year's delay, so it will certainly not be unchartered territory for the more experienced players heading into this match,

JD: What kind of football do Jeonbuk play when they’re at their best? Who should Sydney supporters look out for during the match?

MB: In recent seasons, Jeonbuk have tended to set up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with an emphasis on breaking with pace, relying on wingbacks to overlap and help spread the width when attacking. However, the sending off of regular right-back Lee Yong causes concern, with the experienced Choi Chul-soon likely to deputise. Furthermore, pre-season departures of Moon Seon-min and Ricardo Lopes have left their traditional pacey employment of wingers/inside forwards somewhat lacking, as shown by the lethargic nature in which they both tried to counter and the way they also conceded possession in the final third to Yokohama F. Marinos. The hope would be that new signing Murilo, a 25-year-old winger who made his debut from the bench in that match, can inject some life into proceedings. Ideally, youngster Cho Gue-seung will also be given the nod ahead of 40-year-old captain Lee Dong-gook to lead the line this time.

As alluded to earlier though, it will be the younger players to keep an eye on, with Takahiro Kunimoto poised to pose problems if employed behind the striker as he did against Marinos. He is a technically-gifted player that perhaps struggled at Gyeongnam last season, partly through injury and partly through being asked to do much in a side coping with a relegation battle. However, with experience surrounding him, he can be given free rein to attack knowing that his teammates will have him covered.

JD: Do you think Jeonbuk will aim to sit back or really go and try and get the win in Sydney?

MB: Given what should have really been a thrashing at the hands of Marinos, Jeonbuk must now look to earning as many points from both Sydney and Shanghai SIPG knowing that they are likely to come away with little or nothing when they travel to Japan. I do expect them to be tentative in the opening exchanges but, if given time to settle, should be able to carve out opportunities as the match progresses. Jeonbuk's experience in Asia should now be coming to the fore, but having seen their first match of the 2020 campaign, a draw would perhaps be a respectable result.

[Listen: AFC Champions League Preview]

Matthew asks, Jamie answers

Matthew Binns: Like Jeonbuk, Sydney FC struggled to contain Yokohama F. Marinos in their first group game of the tournament. Where do you think Sydney were exposed in that match?

Jamie Dunkin: Sydney really struggled with the pressing game of Yokohama, and just couldn't breath when on the ball or keep passes together. Sydney are a side who pride themselves on the possession of the ball and being able to calmly pass the ball around in build-up and Yokohama didn't allow us a second. I think it was also a bit of bad luck to concede the first goal so early - a heavily deflected effort which really shot down the confidence. The pace from the Japanese champions was tough for our veteran centreback duo to handle as well. Yokohama were lethal with their chances, and we just couldn't cope with it - and also not helped by not playing a game for a month after fixtures postponed and a bye in the A-League.

MB: Do you envisage Sydney making any particular changes for the visit of Jeonbuk?

JD: Coming off a disappointing performance in a derby loss in the A-League, I think Corica will be thinking of a few small changes, but mostly ones that get the squad closer to his best XI. I expect Paulo Retre to return to central midfield alongside Luke Brattan after Retre missed out on the derby due to suspension. A slight reshuffle in the attacking midfield spots too, with Ninkovic being swapped out for Caceres - though there's been a bit of thought that Corica could start youngster Marco Tilio ahead of Caceres or Baumjohann (the other #10 in the system) after the 18-year-old put in a series of strong cameo appearances off the bench in the last two weeks. Another potential switch-up would be fellow youngsters Trent Buhagiar (known for his speed) or Jordi Swibel taking one of the striker spots held by Kosta Barbarouses or Adam Le Fondre, though unlikely I feel.

MB: Which players do you see making the difference for the hosts on Wednesday evening?

JD: This is a difficult one to predict, Sydney haven't quite played at their best lately and really none of the usual dangermen has been in top form. But it's hard to go past Luke Brattan as one of the most important players - the holding midfielder has been consistently great in the A-League and has the ability to read the game well and pick a pass. The other key player will be Alexander Baumjohann, the German playmaker. He's been a bit inconsistent in the A-League but on his day has shown himself to be a top shelf player and capable of brilliance. He'll be under a lot more pressure to perform and create chances for the two strikers with Ninkovic not in the ACL squad. Baumjohann has also often performed better when not playing alongside Ninkovic, and able to roam a bit more as a playmaker.

MB: Miloš Ninković was excluded from Sydney's Champions League squad. What was the reasoning behind this omission and is the decision justified?

JD: Ninkovic's exclusion was mostly a decision made by the man himself, with the Serb citing his fitness and age as a major factor and volunteered to sit out of the campaign so he could put his best in for Sydney in the A-League as we look to wrap up the title. I think the decision makes sense, even if Milos is a big loss. His experience and skill on the ball will be greatly missed, but I think it was the obvious choice considering the other visa players in the squad and in particular the combination play between All Whites striker Kosta Barbarouses and Englishman Adam Le Fondre.

MB: How do you see this game playing out?

JD: Sydney will be desperate to prove themselves and get back to winning ways following such a big loss in the Sydney Derby on the Friday, and with the midfield duo of Retre and Brattan back I think they'll be much better balanced. Sydney will need to be more lethal with chances presented to them than they have been in recent games, and Adam Le Fondre keen to break his 3 game run without a goal. Corica has often gotten the best out of Sydney after a loss, and I think they'll be wanting to prove a point and get a first home Champions League win in four years. Predicting a tight 2-1 win for Sydney at Jubilee.

We'd like to once again thank Jamie for taking the time to help write this match preview. Jamie runs All Sides Of The Harbour, a website dedicated to covering Sydney FC. You can follow him on Twitter here.

[READ: Guide to 2020 AFC Champions League]

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