It’s that time of the year again when the first competitive fixtures of the season are almost upon us, so close we can almost taste the victory, hear the roars and unfortunately for many try to shrug off defeat. Next week sees the beginning of the 2016 Asian Champions League group stages and with Pohang avoiding an upset by easily dismissing Hanoi T&T in their playoff match Korea has four teams in the East Asian groups. As always expectations are high and following last year’s successful if not exactly breathtaking performances in the groups it will be interesting to see if we will see four teams in the knockout stages again. Some have a better chance than others of progressing with at least one if not two ‘groups of death’ and coupled with the recent Chinese spending spree there are quite a few hurdles standing in the way of replicating last year.
Becamex Bing Duong
Jeonbuk find themselves yet again in a group that on paper they should progress from although perhaps not quite as easy as last year. They will yet again clash swords with Bing Duong who last year they defeated 3-0 at home before rather surprisingly coming back from Vietnam with a 1-1 draw. You would expect them to be victorious over both matches this year and with the two matches being back to back could well give the boys in green the boost in the group they need. As with all the Chinese teams in the ACL this year Jiangsu are going to be a surprise package and nobody really knows how their new signings of Chelsea’s Ramires and Shaktars’ Alex Tiexeira will gel together but it’s safe to say that if they do hit the ground running then they will be a force in the group. That could well leave Jeonbuk vying for second place with the final team in the group, FC Tokyo.
The Japanese outfit secured their place in Group E courtesy of a 9-0 demolition of Thailand’s Chonburi FC, and regardless of the opposition any victory of that margin has to be respected. Tokyo boast Australian international Nathan Burns among their ranks and also have a man familiar to Scottish fans in the guise of ex-Rangers and St-Johnstone striker Fancisco Sandanza. They will definitely be in the mix come the end of Round 6 and it could all come down to how many each team put past the unfortunate Bing Duong to split the teams.
Jeonbuk have been pretty active in the transfer window securing the names of Kim Bo Kyung and Kim Shin Wook along with Australian defender Erik Paartalu, they haven’t been strengthening just to retain their K-League crown and will see the ACL as a competition that they will be hoping to play a major role in. They will have to start better than last year’s 0-0 home draw against Kashiwa Reysol in order to do so though and giving that their first match is at home to likely second place rivals Tokyo less than a win could be problematic. Will Jeonbuk hit the ground running or will they stagger towards the knockout stages like last year?
Player to watch – Kim Shin Wook
Predicted finish – 2nd place
FA Cup winners FC Seoul are drawn in Group F which is potentially the easiest of the groups for the Korean teams and is one that they will probably be quietly confident about progressing from. They are a far stronger side than last year’s team that crashed out rather embarrassingly in the knockout stages to a 6-3 aggregate defeat at the hands of Gamba Osaka. Since then they have added steel in the middle in the form of Takahagi, guile up front in the form of Adriano and of course the return of former hero Dejan will almost certainly give them that little extra belief. Although they should progress from the group they do still have a couple of tricky fixtures to navigate. Their opening match is away to Thai champions Buriram who are no pushovers at home as Seongnam FC found out last year with both the heat and clinical finishing of the opposition proving too much for them. Potentially the toughest test for Seoul will be that of J-League champions Sanfreece Hiroshima who have the pleasure of under 23 hero Takuma Asano in their ranks. Japanese teams are notoriously slow starters as was witnessed last year with Gamba Osaka and Seoul will do well to exploit this when Sanfreece come to town in round 2.
The final team to make up the group is Shandong Luneng who made their way to the group stages via a playoff victory over Adelaide. Shandong may not boast the superstar signings of the other Chinese entries this year but they do have Brazilian striker Aloisio who’s return of a goal every two games is not to be sniffed at. The victory over Adelaide was pretty impressive giving that the Australians are currently nineteen matches into their season and occupy third spot in the table. In that match Shandong raced into a 2-0 HT lead. The hosts missed a penalty before they finally pulled a goal back but it was too little too late and for the second year in a row an Australian team crashed out in the playoffs at the hands of the less-fancied team from China.
As previously said on paper Seoul should be able to steer their way through the group and could find themselves the only Korean team topping their table come the end of Round 6. A lot will depend on which Dejan returns to the club, the fans will be hoping it’s the Dejan of 2012/13, if so then they could well go further than last year.
Player to watch – Returning legend Dejan
Predicted finish – 1st place
Group G is the first of the two potential ‘groups of death’ as Suwon face Austrialian champions Melbourne, last year’s losing semi-finalists Gamba and Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Shanghai. They will begin their campaign with a home match against Gamba and you already have the feeling that that could be a ‘must-win’ match for them. This time last year they came from behind to snatch all three points against Urawa Reds but you would imagine they will face a tougher test this time round. Gamba are a good team and will probably still feel aggrieved that they lost the J-League ‘final’ in the manner in which they did by conceding two late goals. They have several good players but all eyes will be on striker Usami and Suwon will have to keep him quiet if they are to have any chance in both matches.
In Melbourne and Shanghai they face two unpredictable teams, Australian teams don’t tend to travel too well and Shanghai are making their ACL debut so Suwon may just be able to exploit these to their advantage. That’s not to say either team are mugs, Melbourne won the A-League last year and have playmaker , and all round Football Manager legend, Kosta Barbarouses to call upon and although they may struggle on the road they should be a tough nut to crack at home. Shanghai, although novices in this arena have some pretty experienced ‘big-hitters’ to turn to. They have ex-Evergrande pair Conca and Elkeson in their squad and both have put many a Korean team to the sword before. Add to this the old warhorse Sven and they are a team that probably won’t succumb to ‘wedding night nerves’.
It’s a tough group indeed for Suwon and they will have to come out the blocks firing on all cylinders to have any chance of repeating last year’s appearance in the knockout stage. The fact that they really haven’t strengthened at all over the summer is surely going to have an impact on them and you get the feeling they might be better served focusing on ther dismal domestic cup record than dream of finals in the Middle East.
Player to watch – Kwon Chang Hoon
Predicted finish – 3rd place
After missing out in 2015 Pohang have been placed in probably the toughest group of all the East Asian groups as they take on the might of Guangzhou Evergrande (self-proclaimed ‘biggest team in Asia’), a resurgent Urawa Reds team and Australia’s second placed Sydney FC. . The group is being dubbed ‘The Champions Group’ due to the number of ACL crowns the teams have managed to accumulate through the years (Pohang – 3, Evergrande – 2, Urawa 1)
Like Suwon, Pohang also haven’t really strengthened over the close season and as a result will more than likely find themselves up against in from the off. Where Group G has the unknown in terms of Shanghai, there is no doubting both the experience and quality that Evergrande bring to the table. Their first match sees them travel to China to take on a team boasting Martinez, Paulinho, Goulart and Kim Young Gwon to name a few. They are also managed by the wily old Brazilian Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari who short of a disastrous spell at Chelsea has been an inspirational manager. Poahng can take heart from the fact that FC Seoul were hugely unlikely not to take something from the corresponding match last year. If they were to go one step further and return with something from the match then they might be able to build momentum.
In Urawa Reds they face a team that surely has a point to prove after last year’s poor showing where they finished bottom of their group with only one victory. It should be noted that at the same time as they were plodding around Asia they were romping up the J-League table and won the first half of the season relatively convincingly. They might not possess the ‘bums on seats’ names of Usami and Asano but they do have a solid core in the team and will probably look to players such as Kashiwagi to keep them composed and on track.
Like Urawa the final team in Pohang’s group are also more of a team than a collection of individuals. It’s their first time back in the ACL since 2011 when they finished some way off the pace from Suwon Bluewings and Kashima Antlers and they will be striving to make sure they are least still competing for second place when the second round of fixtures come around. They may not be the most glamourous team in the competition but it wasn’t that long ago that the legendary figure of Alessandro Del Piero was strutting his stuff in the sky blue. As per most Australian teams they may suffer travelling away in Asia but they will make up for that at home, and with Pohang’s terrible record in Oz you would imagine they’d be good for a full haul of the points that match.
Pohang really have it all to do in this group, losing some of their best players to both China and the other K-League teams won’t help them. Add this to the fact they have a new manager and you can only see this campaign as a struggle.
Player to watch – hat-trick hero Shim Dong Woon
Predicted finish – 4th place