Asian Champions League Preview: K League Seeks Rebound

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - JUNE 20: The AFC Champions League Trophy is displayed during the Quarter Finals Knock-out Stage Draw of the 2013 AFC Champions League at the AFC House on June 20, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

All four K League teams in the Asian Champions League are in action this week in their 2nd Group Stage game, and all are seeking redemption. A poor first round that saw Korea’s flagbearers in the competition go 0-1-3 spurred worried questions about the state of the league’s top teams compared to Asian opposition. Can they banish that speculation on Matchday 2?

The K League Classic kicks off this weekend, but 4 teams – FC Seoul, Suwon Bluewings, Ulsan Hyundai, Jeju United – have already played their season opener. A brief recap on how they got to Asia:

FC Seoul – K League Classic winners, 2016 / Semi-Final finish in 2016 ACL

Suwon Samsung – KFA Cup winners, 2016 / Group Stage exit in 2016 ACL

Ulsan Hyundai – K League Classic 4th place, 2016 / First appearance since …. / Won qualifying play-off against Eastern to qualify for 2017 ACL

Jeju United – K League Classic 3rd place, 2016 / First appearance since…

Of course, Jeonbuk Hyundai were excluded from the tournament – a punishment stemming from the bribery scandal in 2012.

Last matchday’s results:

Kashima Antlers 2:0 Ulsan Hyundai (Group E)

FC Seoul 0:1 Shanghai SIPG (Group F)

Kawasaki Frontale 1:1 Suwon Samsung (Group G)

Jeju United 0:1 Jiangsu Suning (Group H)

The only side able to nag a point were the Bluewings, while neither of the Korean sides hosting Chinese clubs were able to share the spoils. A confirmation that the best CSL teams have become Asia’s strongest?

This matchday:

Ulsan Hyundai : Brisbane Roar (Group E)

Manager Kim Doheon’s first two games at the head of the Tigers’ haven’t gone smoothly at all. The former Incheon boss was known for his love of the direct, long-ball game, a style of play that kept Incheon afloat in the K League through troublesome times. But Kim’s decision to set up Ulsan in a Conte-style 3-4-3 has seen them struggle to score against Hong Kong’s Kitchee in the ACL qualifier (Ulsan needing penalties to advance) and his use of a couple players out-of-position didn’t help them to muster much of a fight in their first group stage encounter.

Brisbane’s recent form has been a mixed bag; a victory against Shanghai Shenhua in the qualifiers alleviated the club’s sputtering A-League form, with no league win in the month of February. Their recent stalemate at home against Thai champions Muangthong mean that both sides will be hoping for an important victory to reboot their campaigns.

Fun fact: Dimitri Petratos, Ulsan’s new attacker, played for Brisbane from 2013 to 2017. He was briefly signed by the Newcastle Jets before signing for Ulsan after just two weeks at the club.

Prediction: Ulsan 1-1 Brisbane

Urawa Red Diamonds : FC Seoul (Group F)

Seoul can be forgiven for losing to a Shanghai side that had both Hulk and Oscar in the line-up (Hulk smash saw Shanghai win 1-0), but Dejan’s penalty miss in the second half made the result a bit more sour. Seoul are having to cope with the loss of Adriano over the transfer window and are significantly weakened compared to last year. Travelling away to an Urawa side confident after a 4-0 thumping of Western Sydney in Australia will not be an easy task. Expect a huge crowd to attend what should be a competitive battle between the most popular club in Japan (attendance-wise) and the Korean champions – but based off of what we saw last time and the club’s respective fitness levels, I give advantage to the Japanese side.

Prediction: Urawa 2-1 Seoul

Suwon Bluewings : Guangzhou Evergrande (Group G)

Suwon did muster a draw away in Japan against Kawasaki Frontale, which is admirable, but the Bluewings haven’t really renewed their squad from a disappointing 2016. Their defensive core remains fragile and their midfield pairing needs time to gel. Australian centreback Matthew Jurman, their star winter signing, could solidify the Bluewings’ defense over time but an immediate impact so early into the season seems unlikely. All this is not to say they can’t rebound in the K League this season, but a turnover into beating one of Asia’s greatest superpowers? Not happening.

Prediction: Suwon 0-2 Guangzhou

Gamba Osaka : Jeju United (Group H)

Jeju United didn’t get off to a winning start against Jiangsu last week, but that’s not to say they don’t boast a whole host of attacking wealth. Ahn Hyunbeom, Hwang Ilsoo and Marcelo are speedy options all capable of mounting a dangerous counter-attack while the squad also has a number of veterans. Conceding a late 90th minute goal in the last game is a tough pill to swallow, but when allowed to play a more open, attacking game against a more evenly-matched opponent, I favour Jeju.

Prediction: Gamba 1-2 Jeju

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The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?