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ACL Preview: Yokohama F. Marinos Vs. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

K League 1 titleholders Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head into Tuesday's clash with last season's J.League champions knowing that their fate is no longer in their hands if they are to progress from their AFC Champions League group. Needing two victories and a helping hand from Sydney FC, the North Jeolla side will be well aware their is not an easy one, especially against a side that humbled them back when these two sides met last February. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors columnist Matthew Binns speaks with J-Talk Podcast co-host and Football Radar's Sam Robson about what to expect.

Matthew Asks, Sam Answers

Matthew Binns: On paper, this season has been a stark contrast from last year for Yokohama F. Marinos, with their domestic form seeing them relinquish their title with ease. What has gone wrong for the side this season and is there pressure for them to deliver in this competition? 

Sam Robson: Yokohama have not found this season an easy one to navigate. With the season re-starting in July and a full J1 season having to be played inside six months, the whole league has faced fixture congestion. The ACL clubs have had it much worse though as their fixtures, which would have been played both during the first window for the return of the ACL in October, and then this window were rearranged into spare mid-week dates meaning Yokohama and co. had to play every three/four days from August to November. This fixture congestion has meant Postecoglou has had to change his side regularly to keep the team fresh, and has also caused injuries to key players meaning consistency has been very hard to come by. This of course cannot be totally used as an excuse. Mistakes that Yokohama made regularly in 2018, when they narrowly avoided relegation, have crept back into their game, with their defence and goalkeeper guilty of sloppily conceding possession far too often.

I don’t get the sense though that there is a huge amount of pressure on the manager or the team to win this competition. Obviously, it is something they will strive for, but there is an inherent belief both from supporters and at board level, in Postecoglou’s methods so I would be very surprised if failure to win this competition resulted in any genuine threat to his position.

MB: Marinos come into this game off the back of two closely contested matches with Shanghai SIPG, with the latter seeing them lose 2-1. Do you think these games may have exposed any weaknesses in this side that Jeonbuk could perhaps learn from?  

SR: Marinos didn’t play particularly well in either game against Shanghai, but the result in the first game has given them that bit of breathing space and put them on the brink of qualifying. They played pretty much two different teams in the two games, so it is hard to pinpoint a specific area of concern. In the first game, the lack of a main striker was evident (Junior Santos was left at home due to the Foreign Quota rules). The major weakness though, which has been apparent throughout Postecoglou’s tenure is their passing out from the back. High pressing Yokohama is a real high-risk high reward strategy. At their best, Yokohama will skip by that press and expose the opposition, but if they aren’t quite on it, this will lead to passes going astray, possession gifted easily and clear cut chances created for the opposition.

MB: With games coming thick and fast, and perhaps one eye already on the knockout rounds, do you see manager Ange Postecoglou making changes for this encounter to keep his side fresh? 

SR: As much as Jeonbuk will not have liked the result from Saturday’s fixture, with Shanghai beating Yokohama 2-1, they won’t have been happy with the team Yokohama put out either. They went relatively second string in that game, making 8 changes from the first Shanghai game. I’d expect Yokohama to revert back to their strongest XI here, try to seal their progression to the last 16 and in that instance, then be able to rest players again in the final group game against Sydney FC.

Sam Asks, Matthew Answers

Sam Robson: Since arriving in Qatar for the resumption of this season’s Asian Champions League, Jeonbuk have won one and lost one. How would you assess the team’s performances so far?

Matthew Binns: There's no doubt the performances have been underwhelming given the fine form they finished the season in, but that is somewhat understandable given the lengthy list of absentees the team is now having to contend with. An injury in each leg of the FA Cup final ensured first-choice right-back Lee Yong and attacking midfielder Takahiro Kunimoto would miss this competition, before additional injuries to the likes of Lee Seung-gi and the self-isolation of Son Jun-ho and Lee Ju-young have left the team looking rather threadbare. At present, winger Murilo Henrique is having to fill in the centre of the park whereas second-choice centre-back Koo Ja-ryong has already had to fill out the vacant full back position. The team is also having to play youth and second-choice options such as Na Sung-eun to help plug the gaps, although admittedly it was Na who would score the winner against Sydney FC and claim his first professional goal in the process. With this considered, the performances can be put into context somewhat. What really should be looked at are their displays in their first two group stage games back in February which have really made the mountain left in front of them near insurmountable.

SR: Jeonbuk are without a couple of players due to the COVID situation surrounding the Korean National Team, how big of an impact has this had on Jeonbuk’s preparations?

MB: As touched upon above, both Son Jun-ho and Lee Ju-young were forced to return home after an outbreak of COVID19 in the Korean National Team squad meant they were to self-isolate and miss this competition. Both players are huge losses to Jeonbuk for different reasons. Son Jun-ho was just recently anointed the K League 1 MVP for his displays in defensive midfield and the influence he has shown to help drive this Jeonbuk side to a domestic double trophy haul. While not everyone agreed with him being awarded the trophy, there is little doubt over the player's ability and how much he has been missed in these opening two matches. Without him, Jeonbuk have struggled to find their rhythm and dictate play as they had been doing in the lead up to this competition.

In regards to Lee Ju-young, while he is admittedly not normally the first choice left-back, his absence means full-back Choi Chul-soon, who can play anywhere across the defence, is left as the only player with minutes in the squad who has played in a full-back position this season. Against Shanghai SIPG, centre-back Koo Ja-ryong was asked to step in on the right, while the Sydney match saw Jeonbuk having to change formations completely to a 3-4-3. It is likely that we will see this latter shift once more come Tuesday evening, with two defensive midfielders in Lee Soo-bin and Shin-hyung-min likely to sit in front of the back three and try to disrupt Yokohama's onslaught.

SR: With two games to play, Jeonbuk sit 3rd in Group H 5 points behind both Yokohama and Shanghai. Jeonbuk are going to have to beat both sides and hope for some help from an already eliminated Sydney FC to qualify, is there confidence within the side that they can at least fulfil their side of the bargain, and will the situation mean Jeonbuk will have to adapt their usual game plan at all?

MB: Again, the form they were in towards the end of the season was encouraging as they clawed back the top spot from Ulsan Hyundai before then beating them again over two legs in the FA Cup. Their form even suggested that this competition's postponement could have really benefitted them as their performances were a stark contrast to how they looked at the beginning of 2020. However, injury has robbed them of maintaining this level and they now look set to crash out of this competition at the group stage for the first time since 2012. I would not be surprised if they mustered the courage to get a result in one of these two fixtures, but six points plus a hand from Sydney FC may just be a step too far.

We'd once again like to thank Sam Robson for contributing to this preview. Sam is an analyst for Football Radar covering the J.League 1, as well as co-hosting the J-Talk Podcast, a podcast dedicated to Japanese football. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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