New campaign sees ambitions renewed
Jiangsu launches its AFC Champions League campaign on Feb 22 as the least speculated upon CSL team and yet, despite Choi Yong-Soo’s chilled press conference pattering, the South Korean manager should have no misapprehensions regarding why Suning’s boardroom big dogs hired him midway through 2016.
His gradual development of FC Seoul from 2012 to 2016 into a continental stalwart proved an impressive template, the K-League club has reached the AFC knockout stages four years running, and meant the Nanjing-based club eschewed the temptation of hiring a flashy European name. The AFC winds a notoriously unpredictable and potholed road, as Dan Petrescu discovered to his peril last season, but mediocrity is unlikely to be tolerated, especially with the increased competition in this year’s CSL.
Simply put, after the disappointment of not reaching the 2016 knockout stages, the club’s owners want the Jiangsu Suning brand to stand for more on the Asian continent than simply the rich Chinese team that plays in blue.
Tentative feelings on Group H
At this level of football, few games are won with the ease, but in Jeju United, Gamba Osaka, and Adelaide United Jiangsu faces a challenging but not insurmountable set of opponents. Osaka stand as the group’s most experienced side with seven group appearances over the past nine seasons, though conceding 1.5 goals per game in last year’s competition and an aging squad are perhaps signs of a side far from its prime. Crucially, the body aching schlep Down Under is scheduled as Jiangsu’s last game, by which stage Ramires and co. will hopefully have the group wrapped up.
Choi has spent the offseason drilling his side, first in Hainan and more recently in Okinawa, and has been vocal about trying to mold a side capable of retaining possession and controlling games. In particular, Choi has expressed a worry over squad depth.
“There have been worries about the gap between our A team and our B team, it is something we need to resolve quickly as this gap is still big and that is a problem.”
While the lack of big name signings over the winter months reflects positively on both the achievements of 2016 and a settled squad, questions remain over the extent to which young holding midfielder Gao Tianyi and 27-year-old defender Yang Boyu (both register for the AFC fixtures) improve the squad.
Certainly, the attacking exploits of the Korean’s front pairing of Roger Martinez and Alex Teixeira promises to trouble defenses. However, in the absence of Trent Sainsbury, pressure mounts a little on Li Ang and Hong Jeong-ho, who will likely form two thirds of the backline. Additional, balance will be key with the side’s ability to transition through the centrally deployed Ramires and Wu Xi fundamental to Choi’s 3-5-2 formation.
Jeju United, a perfect opening test?
The opening fixture away to a well-organized Jeju United may prove an ideal measure of the side’s preseason exploits, especially given the team’s historical struggles in the competition away from home (one win, three draws, two defeats). Choi knows the opposition well and, in the days leading up to the contest, Jiangsu’s manager has talked up Jo Sung-hwan’s side.
“My team needs to do more work on integration. We haven’t reached where we should be yet. We have to be prepared for a tough game. This is the first Asian Champions League match and we have to know it is going to be extremely difficult.”
Having finished third in last year’s K-League, Jeju have built on a successful campaign through the smart additions of Frederic Mendy and Australian nomadic defender Aleksandar Jovanović, who returns to Korea for his second stint at the club. He will slot neatly into an experienced backline that has played together for several seasons and is unanimously entering its prime years (this bloke says 27-31…unless your name is Paolo Maldini).
Choi noted in his press conference that Jeju have training longer and at a higher competitive intensity than his side (mind games me thinks). However, the one lasting impression of having watched his 3-5-2 formation bubble and ferment for half the 2016 season is that of movement and offensive openness, Jiangsu will have goal scoring chances, the question remains whether or not they will capitalize.
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