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ACL Qualification Play-off Preview: Incheon United vs. Hải Phòng FC

Having qualified for the preliminary round of the AFC Champions League last winter, and spent two transfer windows planning for the competition, Incheon United will finally get underway in continental competition for the first time on Tuesday evening against Vietnamese visitors, Hải Phòng in the 2023-2024 AFC Champions League qualification play-off.

Recent Form

Incheon have been on a good run in recent weeks, having won three and drawn one of their last five games, and have lost only twice in their last ten league games. Their run of results in the busy summer K League period has seen them beat league leaders Ulsan and local rivals Seoul away from home, in addition to good wins against Suwon Bluewings, Gangwon FC, Daejeon Hana Citizen and Daegu FC.

With the addition of  Stefan Mugoša back into the fray, Incheon have looked more dangerous when going forward in recent games. Indeed, the last two home games have seen Incheon score five goals - three against Daegu and two in the drawn game with Gwangju - despite only averaging a goal a game throughout the season. The attacking threat Incheon now possess has rarely been greater.

However, not everything is as rosy as it seems. In both of the previous two outings, Incheon held commanding leads but substitutions around the 60th minute led to Incheon losing control of the game, though not losing the games themselves. Leading 3-0 against Daegu at the break, Moon Jihwan, Mugosa and Gerso were withdrawn from the game. Following those changes, Daegu came back into the game, controlled possession and had multiple opportunities to score. Last Friday evening was a similar story against Gwangju. Incheon were leading 2-0 and were comfortable, but almost immediately after Lee Myungjoo and Mugosa were taken off, Gwangju came back into the game and scored. The away team eventually drew the game but had opportunities to take all three points.

Heading into Tuesday's game, it will be interesting to see if Incheon can control the game and learn from mistakes made in recent outings.
 

The Visitors

Hải Phòng beat Hong Kong Rangers last week to set up this playoff with Incheon. Playing in the V.League in Vietnam, they currently sit in fifth position, with one round of games remaining. After being founded in 1952, they have been through a total of nine different name changes before finally settling on their current identity in 2014. The Red Tide, as they are nicknamed, finished second in the league last season behind winner Hanoi FC. The city of Hải Phòng sits on the northeast coast of the country, and coincidentally is twinned with the city of Incheon!

Their squad boasts multiple Vietnamese national team players, including midfielder Lương Xuân Trường, who played with both Incheon and Gangwon in the mid-2010s. Their top scorer this season is  Nguyễn Hải Huy, with four goals and their likely key man is Ugandan right-winger Joseph Mpande, who has three goals and three assists during the campaign. The Incheon defence will also need to keep an eye on Brazilian forward Yuri Mamute, who got a brace in the play-off last week.

Whilst many are expecting the game to be straightforward, Incheon's opponents shouldn't be taken lightly. Hải Phòng have won silverware on several occasions, most recently lifting the Vietnamese National Cup in 2014. Expect a battling performance and fast, counter-attacking football. 



Team News

The Gwangju game was Lee Taehee's 100th game for the club, and he has recently been chosen as the starting keeper following an injury to Kim Dongheon. A good shot-stopper, he is prone to mistakes - as seen with Gwangju's equaliser on Friday evening. In addition, Dongheon has told fans in passing that he's fit to play, and recently featured in a practice game for the reserve team. It will be interesting to see if Incheon coach Jo Sunghwan keeps faith with Taehee this week, or reverts back to Dongheon.

Two players still on the injury list are Hernandes and Shin Jinho. Hernandes seems to still be a few weeks away from full fitness following his injury against FC Seoul in July. Shin Jinho is closer to a return and could feature in the next fortnight.  

Otherwise, the line-up is likely to be as we've seen in league games recently; 3-5-2 with Gerso and Mugosa up top. The two have scored recently, in addition to assisting each other and look to be developing a good partnership.   


Who to Watch

Despite the furore of Mugosa's return to Incheon in recent weeks, Gerso Fernandes has been Incheon's stand-out player in the last two months. He's scored four goals and got three assists in the last month in the K League and is showing form similar to his time at Jeju. Technically very good, tactically aware and with explosive pace, he's able to turn the game in a moment. Whilst many eyes are on Incheon's #9, Gerso is doing the most damage - and he's doing it under the radar. 


Where to Watch

The game will be broadcast on the Korean channel Sky Sports on Tuesday night. Kick-off is at 7.30pm.

FNR

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