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ACL Preview: Can SIPG slay Asian powerhouse Jeonbuk at the Stadium?

Shanghai SIPG

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, WEF’s regular SIPG correspondent Jeff Beresford-Howe and Matthew Binns, K League United associate editor, exchange views about what we’re likely to see when SIPG takes on Jeonbuk Motors in the ACL at Shanghai Stadium on Wednesday night.

Questions for Jeonbuk

Jeff Beresford-Howe: Jeonbuk has been using only one foreigner regularly, the Brazilian Ricardo, and he’s been tepid as a goalscorer. This is an astonishing sight to Chinese fans, who are used to teams using as many foreigners as allowed, and used to watching them dominate in attacks. What gives?

Matthew Binns: There are two parts to this particular answer. First would be the injuries that are affecting or have affected these players for most of the season. Adriano has been ruled out for the year whereas both Tiago and Bernie Ibini have had to fight back to full fitness from injuries they carried into the season. The latter two were on the bench at the weekend, with Ibini making a late cameo to provide an excellent assist for the winner. The Australian is still new at Jeonbuk with only a few appearances, but contributions like that should see him start to appear more regularly.

The second reason is the level of domestic talent available at Jeonbuk. So often in Asian leagues, the foreign players are the marquee players, which they really should be seeing as it allows managers to select beyond the levels offered within the domestic talent pool. However, Jeonbuk’s side is made up of a number of experienced Korean internationals, former internationals, or established youth players that are tipped for future call-ups. The quality gap between domestic and foreign talent is far closer at Jeonbuk, which does lead to increased competition for places.

JB: How important is the ACL to Jeonbuk? The Jeonbuk fans don’t seem to prioritize it; attendance is noticeably lower in Jeonju for Jeonbuk’s ACL matches. This is also a factor with the league; the CSL gives their teams as much rest before and after ACL matches as possible; the K-League doesn’t do this. Should SIPG expect Jeonbuk’s first team in Shanghai?

MB: Despite the attendance issues, the ACL is very much the first and foremost objective for both the club and the fans. The lack of attendance midweek is partially down to lack of accessibility. The World Cup Stadium is on the edge of Jeonju, the capital of Jeollabuk-do province, with the aim to attract fans from across the region. However, on a midweek fixture, it’s often too difficult to get to the stadium in time for kick-off. While admittedly you do have to go back to last season, when these ACL attendances are compared to other midweek fixtures for different competitions (excluding those on public holidays), the crowd size is similar.

In terms of rest time, the league has been known to give sides as much time as possible without delaying the whole schedule, ensuring teams in the ACL play their fixtures for each round first. The opening match of the season, for example, saw all four Champions League teams play a day ahead of other sides. This also happened this weekend, with all four K League ACL teams having their games on Saturday (despite both Daegu and Gyeongnam being out of the competition). In the past, the league has also suspended the occasional league fixture if a team progresses far enough in the competition, with FC Seoul getting a reprieve of domestic duties in 2016 when they reached the quarter-final.

JB: What kind of formation can we expect from Jeonbuk?

MB: Jeonbuk are almost certainly going to line up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with manager José Morais having not changed from this shape since the end of March across all competitions. Song Beom-keun is expected to start in net, with Kim Jin-su, Hong Jeong-ho, Kim Min-hyeok and Lee Yong along the backline from left to right. The experienced Shin Hyung-min is expected to sit in front of the backline and there will likely be a midfield of Ricardo Lopes, Lee Seung-gi, Son Jun-ho and Moon Seon-min. Up front, it will be a choice between Kim Shin-wook and Lee Dong-gook. While Kim is indeed the in-form striker, the manager has tended to opt for Lee in Asia. Either way, both are expected to appear during the match.

JB: Is Jeonbuk a possession-oriented or counterattacking outfit, and which midfielders does SIPG need to worry about when Jeonbuk has the ball?

In previous seasons, Jeonbuk has tended to be a counter attacking outfit, pressing their opponents into mistakes and then transitioning very quickly into attack. However, while Jeonbuk used to finish around 6th in the average possession tables per season, this year they are top and this might be down to the manager’s new methods. When attacking, Jeonbuk like to use overlapping full-backs, with Korean internationals Kim Jin-su and Lee Yong both quick enough and accurate enough with their crosses to deliver the ball to the sole striker. Normally, when this player has been Kim Shin-wook, it then allows him to knock the ball down for the four midfielders who tend to converge on the box.

Both wingers tend to act as inside forwards, cutting in and causing havoc, particularly Ricardo Lopes who was rested for the weekend in preparation for this trip. In terms of who to watch in that area of the pitch, the Brazilian will be the player capable of causing SIPG the most headaches.

JB: Prediction?

MB: Jeonbuk undoubtedly fair better at home and will, therefore, want to make sure they have a game still left to play for the second leg. While I do envisage Jeonbuk will not be afraid to attack SIPG, I do think they will show some restraint so as to not expose themselves too early in this tie. I predict a 1-1 draw with Jeonbuk taking a precious away goal back to Jeonju.

Matthew’s Predicted Score: Shanghai SIPG 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Questions for Shanghai

Matthew Bins: Shanghai SIPG are the reigning Chinese Super League champions yet are currently locked in a tight title race with first-placed Beijing Guo’an. Have supporters had any cause for concern with the team’s form this season and does SIPG’s continued participation in this competition threaten their title retention bid?

Jeff Beresford-Howe: SIPG is actually ahead of their championship pace in last year’s CSL. They’re in second place because Beijing Guo’an won their first ten CSL matches. But: SIPG beat Guo’an last month, they’re only five points out less than halfway through the season, and it seems likely that Guo’an will regress back to the pack. SIPG also beat Guo’an in the SuperCup to start the season. I’m still betting on SIPG to win the league. I think most local fans would concur. 

All of this is despite a series of injuries which has caused attackers Hulk and Lyu Wenjun and the entire defender corps to miss significant time. A number of SIPG players have done well in their stead and the squad is finally healthy, so depth, which has been a problem in the past for SIPG, seems to be good enough to sustain runs in both the CSL and the ACL. 

MB: Despite conceding the second-lowest number of goals in the CSL, Shanghai SIPG have had three score draws in the Champions League group stages. Is this something to do with SIPG’s approach to these matches or is it simply a case of tougher competition?

JB: SIPG had a hot start this year followed by a stretch of some awful results against poor teams. Unfortunately for SIPG, their doldrums included the two ACL group stage matches against Sydney FC, both of which ended in frustrating draws despite SIPG using the best line-up they had available. The match in South Korea against Ulsan was tough to watch too. SIPG just didn’t show up for that one. 

However, the draw against Kawasaki Frontale was impressive. Kawasaki dominated SIPG at Shanghai Stadium – an unlucky slip-and-fall on wet turf cost the Japanese side the match – and SIPG needed at least a draw on the fifth matchday in Tokyo to advance out of the group. They got it, arguably outplaying Kawasaki.

Right now, SIPG is playing well. In their last eleven, they have nine wins and a draw and during that time, they’ve outscored opponents 25-8. 

MB: Shanghai SIPG boast an envious plethora of attacking talent, with players such as Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson warranting a place in most teams around the globe. How does manager Vítor Pereira usually set up his team to utilise this talent and who should Jeonbuk be most wary of?

JB: Hulk, despite his tendency to try and bully his way through crowds of defenders, a process that usually ends with the Brazilian on the turf begging for a foul call, is a world-class passer, and so is Oscar. Pereira prefers keeping a tight defensive formation and letting Hulk and Oscar loose on counterattacks that emphasize their creativity. 

That’s tough to defend, but SIPG has other weapons, too. Oscar loves the long, backdoor pass, often to defender Wang Shenchao sneaking in on the weak side, and Elkeson and attacker Lyu Wenjun (who should be back against Jeonbuk after breaking his arm earlier this season) are both deadly when the ball starts bouncing around in the box. 

Odil Akhmedov, the Uzbeki, mostly defensive midfielder, had added a wicked shot to his game in the last year or so and attacker Li Shenglong, if he gets into the line-up, has chipped in four goals and four assists in limited duty this year. 

MB: Are there any concerns for SIPG going into this match which could cause them problems on Wednesday evening?

JB: The weather, often a problem in Shanghai in the summer, is expected to cooperate with no rain and fairly moderate temps. SIPG has four days off before the match, but will have to play again on the Saturday after the Jeonbuk tilt, albeit at home against one of the weaker sides in the CSL.

You have to wonder about aftereffects of the 2016 Jeonbuk-SIPG match-up in the ACL, scoreless until the second half of the second match, when Jeonbuk scored five times. More than half the SIPG roster that night is still with the team. If Jeonbuk scores first, it’s going to test SIPG’s composure.

MB: How do you see this match playing out?

JB: SIPG comes out cautiously, but gets a goal towards the end of the first half. The second half is more open – that’s been a pattern in SIPG matches this year – and Elkeson gets a back-breaking goal for the boys in red.

Jeff’s Predicted Score: Shanghai SIPG 2-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

American expat rooting for Shanghai SIPG, because they're the Oakland A's to Shenhua's San Francisco Giants.

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