Tomorrow night sees Beijing Guoan hosting Jeonbuk Hyundai in the penultimate Asian Champions League group stage match and I sit down with K League United’s Associate Editor and Jeonbuk columnist, Matthew Binns, to preview the match.
Matthew asks, Brandon answers
Matthew Binns: Beijing Guoan find themselves second in Group G and on the brink of qualification to the knockout rounds. Have the supporters’ expectations been met so far by their continental campaign and can they get the results in these last fixtures to progress?
Brandon Chemers: I think most fans are more focused on the league this season & didn’t have high expectations for the ACL, but I think that’s changed with how well the side has done in most of the matches. They should really be on nine points, that they didn’t score against Urawa was crazy. Where they are at this point, the goal has to be to get through and I think they should be able to.
MB: Beijing have been on fire in the CSL, too, recording an impressive seventh win on the bounce and are early league leaders. However, in the long run, have they got the strength in depth to compete on mulitple fronts? Will competitions need to be prioritised and, if so, what changes are we likely to see?
BC: When we talked at the start of the year, I was excited about the two naturalized players in the squad, Nico Yennaris and John Hou Saeter. This being a new process for China, there was a lot of uncertainty about things, but them not being in the ACL squad may be beneficial in that it makes for a natural rotation policy. The squad is pretty deep, but this Jeonbuk game is all the more important because right after the Urawa match, Guoan plays away at Shanghai SIPG (currently third in the CSL). If they get into the knockout stage, priorities may come into play, but right now it’s not an issue.
MB:Which player do you see as being the most likely to influence proceedings in Beijing’s favour on Tuesday night?
BC: I think it comes down to Cedric Bakambu, when he’s on the pitch he’s always the focus for Guoan when going forward and his sublime play (Buriram) or struggles (Urawa) tend to decide how the team will do.
MB: How do you see this encounter playing out?
BC: I’m vaguely optimistic about this one, Guoan tends to play best at home and they’ll want to go all in to avoid having a tough situation at Urawa. I’m confident that they’ll at least take a point from this one and, gun to my head, I’d say 1-0 to Beijing.
Brandon asks, Matthew answers
BC: Jeonbuk slipped up against Buriram, but have been pretty strong both domestically & in Asia so far this year, but a lot of these have been tight games, Are they still feeling out their new manager or are they getting past that point?
MB: The teething problems still somewhat linger yet recent evidence suggests they are returning to the dominant domestic force they were last season. Inconsistency persisted prior to the March international break but a run of winnable fixtures plus two hard-fought and encouraging victories over Urawa Red Diamonds have somewhat reinstalled the belief they had under their previous manager, as evident in their last gasp victory recently over rivals FC Seoul.
One thing new manager José Morais did to steady the ship was to revert back to the 4-1-4-1 system they had employed in recent seasons, with overlapping wing-backs Kim Jin-su and Lee Yong tending to serve Kim Shin-wook who heads down or holds the ball up to bring into the play one of the attacking midfielders or inverted wingers. Morais also removed nearly all new signings from the starting lineup and has only been reintroducing them gradually in recent fixtures. It has allowed for consistency to form while slowly moving towards where the manager wishes it to be, rather than the larger changes made initially at the start of the year.
BC: Following the Guoan match, Jeonbuk has a domestic 1-2 battle away to Ulsan, currently sitting in pole position and with the last group stage match being against Buriram at Jeonju, what’s the chance they play a slightly weaker side against Guoan?
MB: The manager has felt the need to rotate between ACL and league commitments, but with this match being played on a Tuesday and Ulsan Hyundai on the following Sunday, he could still field a strong team knowing that the travel duration from Beijing is minimal and there is ample time to recover. It would be far better for the side to maintain their momentum in addition to getting the result they need as soon as possible rather than gamble against a Buriram United side they have already lost to.
Any changes will be in midfield, with the manager boasting a wealth of options to choose from. I cannot envisage Lopes being rested for this game so the question will be who will compliment him on the opposite flank. Han Kyo-won would be the likely choice. Up front will either be Lee Dong-gook or Kim Shin-wook, with Adriano ruled out for the rest of the season after picking up an injury in the FA Cup.
BC: Lee Dong-gook played well against Guoan and has been doing alright all year long. Is he the ageless wonder? How many more years will he terrorize the K-League & ACL?
MB: Every year is rumoured to be his last but he then signs another one-year extension. He turned 40 at the end of last month yet is still starting regularly for Jeonbuk and was re-appointed captain at the start of the season. He’s had multiple prime opportunities to retire but has always found a reason to say, in addition to not wanting to quit. There was concern he might end his stint last year at the same time as outbound manager Choi Kang-hee, someone who effectively reformed Lee and turned him into a double digit striker every season during his ten-year stint. Choi also reportedly argued regularly for extending his contract with the club as he could see the value in keeping him around.
Hanging onto ‘The Lion King’ this season has also been about smoothing the managerial transition. Both Lee Dong-gook and assistant manager Kim Sang-sik are key figures at the club and keeping them has allowed for the teething period to be shorter As for how long he will continue, it is difficult to tell. Having a footballer at the age of 40, especially still plying his trade at the level which he is, is quite frankly remarkable and as long as his scoring record and performances continue to hold up then he should not be forced out the door, even if some argue that keeping him blocks the path for younger talent. I do, however, feel that this year is about helping the club enter its new managerial era and he may well choose to deem it his last, especially if he can claim yet another trophy as captain and end on a high.
MB: Jeonbuk have been in good form and the wins against Urawa Red Diamonds show the character in the team is still there to find results against tricky opposition. That said, Beijing Guoan look to have found their rhythm since these two sides last met in early March. Combined with playing in the Chinese capital and I can see both sides sharing the spoils with a draw, which should be considered result for Jeonbuk if so and enough for them to progress to the next round due to a superior head-to-head record over Urawa Reds. Score: 1-1
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