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scouting

AFC Champions League Round of 16 [1st Leg] Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Pohang Steelers



The knockout stages of the AFC Champions League have finally returned, and one of the most anticipated matches of the Round of 16 draw is now upon us. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will host Pohang Steelers this Wednesday in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie, which also marks the start of the first competitive fixtures of the year for the two clubs.

Venue: Jeonju World Cup Stadium
Date: Wednesday 14th of February
Kickoff Time: 19:00 (KST)


Pohang swept through the group stage comfortably, topping their group by winning five and drawing once. They impressively beat the current champions, Urawa Red Diamonds, twice. Meanwhile, Jeonbuk had a tough time in what many would have predicted would be an easy group for them. They qualified as one of the best second-placed teams.

With many changes for both clubs across the offseason, this should make for an intriguing contest in the first knockout stages of the new autumn-to-spring schedule for the Asian Champions League.


Team News


Both teams come into the match with fresh squads following pre-season, with the exception of a few players due to pre-existing injuries from last season or those who recently participated in the 2023 Asian Cup.

Nana Boateng was undergoing rehabilitation at the FIFA Medical Centre of Excellence in Dubai during pre-season. He has not yet fully recovered from the injury he suffered at the end of the last season. Similarly, Kwon Chang-hoon is not available and is also training individually, recovering from an inflammation in his Achilles tendon. Additionally, Choi Chul-soon will be unavailable for this match and the first part of the season.

Jeonbuk's four Asian Cup participants have returned. They began training with the team on Monday. Some players aren't 100% fit but are available for selection and could feature in the squad for Wednesday's game.

Pohang's Oberdan may be in doubt, but it is possible that he could yet still feature.

Head-to-head

Jeonbuk did not win even once vs Pohang in the five meetings between the two sides last season, including the FA Cup final, of which Pohang came out as 4-2 victors.

Last season was the first since 2009 that Jeonbuk hasn't beaten Pohang Steelers at least once in a season.

Last Five Encounters:
1st of April 2023, Jeonbuk 1-2 Pohang Steelers, K League 1 Round 5
29th of May 2023, Pohang Steelers 1-0 Jeonbuk, K League 1 Round 15
21st of July 2023, Pohang Steelers 2-1 Jeonbuk, K League 1 Round 24
28th of October 2023, Jeonbuk 1-1 Pohang Steelers, K League 1 Round 35
4th of November 2023, Pohang Steelers 4-2 Jeonbuk, FA Cup Final

Who To Watch

Lee Yeong-jae

New signing Lee Yeong-jae has already demonstrated his ability for the team in pre-season matches. His vision and passing range may be essential in the upcoming game. He played a significant part in feeding the attack and even scored a few goals himself in his first appearances for Jeonbuk, albeit in pre-season.

Jeonbuk has exemplary attacking strength with their forwards, but Lee Yeong-jae plays a vital role as a box-to-box midfielder. He is critical, providing forwards with through balls and lobbed passes and can be a goal threat from range. 




In this high-stakes contest, Lee Yeong-jae will play an important role. He possesses the ability to locate the perfect pass at the opportune moment. Even if the midfield area becomes contested, Lee merely requires a brief moment with the ball to execute a smart through ball or lobbed pass that can unlock a dangerous attacker.

Jeonbuk will rely on him a lot as Petrescu uses a double-pivot. One danger could be if the defence is struggling, Lee might be forced into more of a defensive role during spells of the game. However, if the back four remains solid, it may provide the perfect conditions for Lee Yeong-jae to shine in this match, not having to worry much about protecting the back four but rather focusing his efforts on affecting the game in the middle of the pitch and further forward.

What To Watch

Can Jeonbuk keep it tight at the back?

It's been nearly two years since Jeonbuk kept a clean sheet against Pohang. Competent defending is needed if Jeonbuk is to go far in this tournament and get a result across both legs of the Round of 16. In last year's FA Cup final, they conceded four goals, with three coming in the second half. Can Jeonbuk cope with the pressure this time?

In pre-season against Zenit Saint Petersburg, Jeonbuk were in the game. They went into half-time at 1-1. Similarly to the FA Cup final, they conceded a flurry of goals in the second half and ended up losing 5-1. Throughout pre-season, there has been notable shoddy defending against crosses and set-pieces, resulting in many goals being conceded that were avoidable.

Jeonbuk cannot afford a second-half collapse like they did against Pohang in the cup final in either of these legs. 

Can Pohang attack this weakness?

Despite losing many of their best players, Pohang still possesses much quality down the flanks, one being Hong Yun-sang, who scored an excellent goal in the cup final last season. They know they can hurt Jeonbuk. It's been proven so many times last season, and even without some of the players who were at the club then, they still have enough to damage the home side.

Ahn Hyeon-beom will likely start at right-back for Jeonbuk. He is flawed defensively compared to other full-backs, and collectively, the team struggles to defend wide. In these circumstances, Pohang could efficiently get a quick goal, capitalising on this. 


Final Thoughts

Both teams have undergone significant changes in the offseason. Pohang experienced a managerial change, and Jeonbuk has been anticipating pre-season for a while now to properly adjust to Dan Petrescu's tactics. It's an exciting tie to begin their seasons with two new managers who have had time to implement their ideas throughout pre-season. It will be interesting to see the tweaks in the way both sides play beginning in such an important match.

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