Which defences will hold firm and which will leak goals? Those are the big questions surrounding Wednesday’s two AFC Champions League East Zone clashes.
The round of 16 kicked-off on Tuesday, with Melbourne Victory and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors drawing 1-1 in Australia, while FC Tokyo made the most of home-ground advantage to beat Shanghai SIPG 2-1. On Wednesday, it’s the turn of Urawa Red Diamonds and FC Seoul, and Shandong Luneng and FC Sydney to do battle.
First up is the action in Saitama…
Urawa Red Diamonds vs FC Seoul
Having triumphed in just two of their group stage matches, Urawa would have faced an early exit in many other pools, but they managed to sneak their way through Group H, knocking out defending champions Guangzhou Evergrande on their way.
It was a miserly defence that the J. League side have to thank for their spot in the round of 16, conceding just four goals in six matches. Mihailo Petrovic’s side will need another defensive display of the highest order on Wednesday when they welcome FC Seoul to the Saitama Stadium 2002.
Beaten just once in Group F (after they had already secured their progression), Seoul bagged a tournament-high 17 goals in their six group matches to mark into the knockout stage as one of the competition’s most impressive sides.
It was against a Japanese side, Sanfrecce Hiroshima, that Seoul saw their unbeaten run end, and Urawa will pose similar, but greater, problems for Seoul on attack.
Key players: While it’s been Urawa’s defence that’s been their saviour thus far, the leadership and attacking thrust provided by captain Yuki Muto from the midfield will be crucial in this tie. Urawa can’t sit back on Wednesday, they need a win at home, and Muto is the man who can help them do that.
With 10 goals to his name already in the competition, it’s hard not to look past Adriano as FC Seoul’s man to watch. The Brazilian has the potential to be truly devastating, and should he bag a goal or two on the road, Seoul will be well placed heading into the return leg.
Prediction: FC Seoul to claim a 1-0 win.
Shandong Luneng vs FC Sydney
“They [Shandong] have had some defensive issues in the last few games… they’ve been conceding quite a lot of goals and I’ve seen enough to see where we can expose them hopefully and it will be up to us to take our chances”. Those were the fighting words of FC Sydney coach Graham Arnold ahead of his side’s AFC Champions League clash with Shandong Luneng.
Arnold has travelled to China to watch Mano Menezes’ side and after much time analyzing Wednesday’s opponents is confident his side can return home with a win.
Considering the Sky Blues emerged from a group that contained three previous tournament winners (Urawa Red Diamonds, Guangzhou Evergrande, and Pohang Steelers), one could say Sydney have already over achieved. Don’t think that they’re satisfied though. “We qualified as group winners so we are confident of a win… we are not just targeting a draw,” Arnold asserted.
Shandong too have reason to be pleased simply for making the round of 16 – they had failed to do so at the last six times of asking. Worryingly, Shandong welcome Sydney to the Jinan Olympic Sports Center Stadium in a poor run of form that has seen them win just one of their last six matches in all competitions; a goalless draw with bottom-of-the-table Changchun Yatai over the weekend certainly wasn’t the best preparation.
While the Chinese Super League side played three matches in a week ahead of Wednesday’s match, Sydney haven’t been in action for three weeks. Will it be match sharpness or rest that tips the scales?
Key players: Shandong welcome Diego Tardelli back from injury and not a moment too soon. The Brazilian scored three goals in the group stage (Shandong managed just seven in total), and the attacker’s performance could determine whether or not the home side achieve a positive result.
The Sky Blues conceded just four goals in six group stage matches, and this defensive stability will be crucial against Shandong and Matthew Jurman and Sebastian Ryall will need to be on top form to keep Tardelli quiet.
Prediction: A 0-0 draw.