This Tuesday Eastern will host their second home game in the Asian Champions League, and they will face noone less than K-League giants Suwon Samsung Bluewings. In cooperation with our colleagues from K-League United, offside.hk will present the first of two “Eastern-Suwon” chats between writers of both platforms. For this big game in Mong Kok Stadium, editor-in-chief Tobias Zuser talks to Suwon columnist Scott Whitelock.
First, Tobias asks and Scott answers.
Tobias: It seems Suwon had a decent start in both the ACL and the new K-League season. Especially the draw with Guangzhou Evergrande earned a lot of appreciation, even here in Hong Kong. Were you expecting this solid form, or does it even come as a surprise to Suwon fans?
Scott: Every Suwon fan expects a much better showing this season from a team that severely under-performed last season when they flirted with relegation for much of the year. However, the solid start to the season was abruptly ended at the weekend as Suwon lost 2-0 at home to their rivals, Jeonbuk. With Jeonbuk, last year’s Asian Champions League winners, having a depleted squad, given major transfer window departures and the injury to key midfielder Lee Jae-sung, it was expected that Suwon would win or at least draw the game, but Jeonbuk deservedly breezed past a lackluster Suwon team. Jeonbuk did all the small, dirty things that you would expect to see from a title winning team, and despite Suwon being tipped to challenge for the title, they looked to be a mile away from that level.
Suwon, on paper, now have two winnable games upcoming when they take on Eastern and Daegu and they will need to bounce back quickly if they are to register their first victory of the season.
Tobias: What kind of tactical formation has Suwon adopted recently? Will they go “all attack” against Eastern?
Scott: Suwon are very much an attack-minded team, because their defence isn’t good enough for them to rely on a one goal lead. They rarely win games whilst keeping a clean sheet, and because of this, they tend to set up in attacking formations.
Currently, Seo Jung-won, the Suwon manager, favours a 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3, if you prefer it) formation and a lot is expected from the two wing-backs in an attacking sense. Jang Ho-ik, the right wing-back, is particularly vital in this formation. His speed, energy, and ability on the ball allows the manager to favour a bold and dangerous formation which allows Suwon to get their attacking trio of Yeom Ki-hun, Johnathan and Santos into dangerous areas of the pitch.
Tobias: If you would need to identify any weaknesses in the current Suwon squad, what would they be?
Scott: Last season, Suwon had the second worst defensive record in the K-League. However, the signing of talented Australian defender Matthew Jurman has gone some way to improving on the disastrous defending of last year. It’s still to early to judge how the defence will settle this year, but it is becoming increasingly evident that Suwon are low on quality central midfielders.
The departure of Suwon’s star central man, Kwon Chang-hoon, in the winter has left a wide gaping hole in the squad and it appears that maybe Suwon haven’t quite filled that hole yet. Experienced Lee Yong-rae began the season partnering Lee Jong-sung in the centre of midfield. However, Yong-rae has been injured the last couple of games and Kim Jong-woo, the forgotten man of last season, has stepped in to replace him. After having a successful 2015 season on loan with Suwon’s cross-city neighbours, Suwon FC, the midfielder was rarely used last season and spent the majority of it playing with the reserves. He is now being asked to play in an unfamiliar role and he really struggled in the game against Jeonbuk.
Moreover, the jury is still out on Lee Jong-sung, as the combative midfielder is quite often found out of position. I also find his midfield partner, Lee Yong-rae, to be a little too timid in that central area and he is a player who is extremely uncomfortable when forced to make a challenge on an opposing player.
Tobias: Who would you describe as the ONE key player for Suwon?
Scott: I can’t only pick one, so very briefly, Suwon’s key players are undoubtedly the captain, Yeom Ki-hun, the Brazilian striker, Johnathan, and the experienced defender, Lee Jung-soo. Yeom Ki-hun is the leading assist maker in K-League history and has a beautiful left foot. Almost everything flows through Ki-hun and he is instrumental to the team. While Johnathan is less instrumental, he is invaluable to the team. The forward isn’t involved in general play a lot, but when the striker is given a chance to score he rarely misses. His 14 goals last season were the catalyst for the club to avoid relegation and end the season as FA Cup winners.
Tobias: What would be your score prediction?
Scott: Despite Suwon’s struggles at the weekend, I still expect them to win this game. I hope the manager will take the game seriously and will take a strong squad with him to Hong Kong. If Suwon can rotate but still give game time to Yeom Ki-hun and Johnathan, then I would expect the result to come, although it may not be as comfortable as some people suggested at the beginning of the season.
I will side with a 2-1 victory to Suwon.
Now Scott asks and Tobias answers
Scott: This is the first-ever meeting between these two teams and most followers of Korean football know very little bout their Hong Kong counterparts. Could you give a brief overview of the club in general and how successful have they been in Hong Kong?
Tobias: Established in 1932, Eastern are one of the oldest clubs in Hong Kong – and in fact – they are even the oldest club in this year’s Asian Champions League across all East and West Asian teams. After a promising spell in the 1990s, when they won the domestic championship for three consecutive years, they have disappeared for a while. In 2013, Eastern were again promoted to the top-flight, and since 2014 they have enjoyed major investment that allowed them to hire some of the best players in the territory, including goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai. For the last three years, they have always been one of the title contenders, and they also bagged several cup trophies. Last summer, Eastern’s owner suddenly abandoned the ship – and they were left in limbo for a few weeks. Eventually, they secured a new sponsor from China – but nonetheless the club had to cancel a few high-profile transfers, and it seems they didn’t really have enough money to put together a proper ACL squad.
Scott: A brief look at the Hong Kong Premier League table might suggest that Eastern are breezing through this season. Is that strictly true or have they had some troubles along the way?
Tobias: They have done quite well this season, but the championship is still very much a two-horse race between Eastern and Kitchee. I would even expect that we will only see a decision on the last match day, when these two teams play each other, with the head-to-head result being given priority over goal difference. From my perspective, despite being only second in the league right now, Kitchee have a bit of an advantage for the remaining rounds. It seems, the additional ACL games have worn out the Eastern squad a bit, and some of their key players have been suffering from injuries throughout the season.
Scott: The game will be played in the intimate surroundings of Mong Kok Stadium. What kind of reception can Suwon expect from the home fans and will Eastern try to make their home advantage count for something?
Tobias: Mong Kok Stadium will be sold out again for this match, so there should be around 6,000 fans on the stands. That might not sound like too big of a crowd, but given the small size of the venue, it can be a very electric atmosphere. Most of the people who will watch the game will actually not be Eastern fans, but they support local football in general and would like to breath some ACL air. So the proper support, with singing and chanting, will be limited to the fan club stand, but football supporters in Hong Kong have proved in the past that they can create a very hostile atmosphere – and they will make sure that the opponents won’t have an easy game. Besides, Mong Kok Stadium is commonly known for another “advantage”, as the pitch is around 3 meters narrower than most standard venues. That means, it is a bit easier for defensive teams to “park the bus”, and Eastern might have to go for that option on Tuesday.
Scott: With Eastern’s star man, Manuel Bleda, ruled out of this game, can Eastern still trouble Suwon? If they are to take anything from this game, which players will need to shine?
Tobias: Unfortunately, it will not be only Manuel Bleda who will be missing this game, but also defensive midfielder Diego Eli. That means, Eastern will have to start with just two foreigners into the game, which will definitely be a major blow and reduce their chances for an upset significantly. I think Eastern coach Chan Yuen-ting also doesn’t have too many options and she will most likely move right-wing Jaimes McKee in the center. In addition, we might see Xu Deshuai starting the game on the right wing, while Leung Chun-pong could replace Eli as a second “6” next to Bai He. With their top-scorer and one of their defensive key players missing, Eastern will have to rely on either counter-attacks via McKee or seek their chances from set-pieces – and the latter ones might be the best opportunity to score, with Xu Deshuai being one of Hong Kong’s best “dead ball” executers.
Scott: What is your score prediction?
Tobias: If Eastern would have entered the game in full strength, I would have probably given a quite bold prediction, but now I am definitely a bit less confident. Nevertheless, I could see the match going two-ways: From an optimistic perspective, I could see Eastern frustrating Suwon – as they do have a very solid defense – and if goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai has a good day, he can drive his opponents nuts. So for this scenario, I would choose a goalless draw. However, if Suwon manage to score in the first half, it could turn ugly very quick, and I would predict a 1-3 win for the guests.
The writer’s chat is a regular format at K-League United and we feel honoured to host one edition at offside.hk. We will have another chat before the return-leg in Korea, which will be hosted by our colleagues. For more information on Korean football, check out their website and follow K-League United and Scott on Twitter.