FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan previews Wednesday’s AFC Champions League semi-final second leg between Suwon Samsung Bluewings and Kashima Antlers.
In the blue corner sit Suwon Samsung Bluewings, one of only four teams to have won back-to-back crowns in the AFC Champions League and a club who have done well to get this far despite some recent unrest.
Meanwhile, lying in wait in the red corner are Kashima Antlers, the most-successful club in Japan with eight titles but yet to really make an impact on the continental front, having never reached further than the quarter-finals prior to this season.
On Wednesday evening, these two proud football clubs meet at the Suwon World Cup Stadium, where only one can advance into the ACL final.
The score currently reads 3-2 in favour of the Antlers, following their come-from-behind win in the first leg on October 3.
But, with home advantage, can Suwon turn things around and keep alive their hopes of a third Asian title?
A curious case of events in Suwon
It has been a strange few weeks for the Bluewings as they initially parted ways with coach Seo Jung-won only for him to have since returned at the helm.
In his absence, they managed to pull off a shock 3-0 win at K League 1 champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the first leg of the quarter-finals, only to contrive to lose the return encounter on home soil by the same scoreline and needed to scrape through on penalties.
Nonetheless, they have found some in recent weeks and enter Wednesday’s game on the back of two league wins and a shootout triumph in the Korean FA Cup, which saw them advance into the semi-finals.
Still, this is a side that has been plagued by inconsistency all season long and it remains to be seen which Suwon turn up on the night.
If they are on their game, then they certainly can be confident in their chances of success, especially with the likes of Dejan Damjanovic, Yeom Ki-hun and Elvis Saric leading the charge.
Will Japan reign supreme for a second year running?
Despite their impressive ways in the ACL, Kashima have struggled to replicate the same form on the domestic front and are currently fourth in the J1 League, 14 points behind leaders Kawasaki Frontale.
However, this could prove to be a good omen considering compatriots Urawa Red Diamonds finished 7th in the league last season but achieved success in the form of the Champions League crown.
Antlers manager Go Oiwa has a good blend of experience and youth at his disposal, from established names like ex-Schalke right-back Uchida and captain Yasushi Endo to talismanic 22-year-old frontman Yuma Suzuki.
Mid-campaign arrival Serginho has also fitted in seamlessly with three goals in as many games in the ACL, and will be one of Kashima’s main threats again.
Previous meetings this season
Just like with the West’s semi-final between Persepolis and Al Sadd, Suwon and Kashima also met previously in the group stage in a peculiar Group H which ended without a single home victory among the four teams.
Their first encounter saw Kashima emerge 2-1 victors courtesy of a double from Mu Kanazaki, who has since left the club to partner Spanish World Cup winner Fernando Torres at Sagan Tosu.
The Bluewings then exacted revenge on the final match day of the group stage in April, with Damjanovic bagging the only goal of the game a minute after the half-hour mark.
Then came the first leg of this semi which saw Suwon stun the hosts by claiming a 2-0 lead inside the opening six minutes, before the Japanese outfit fought back for a dramatic 3-2 victory via Atsuto Uchida’s 93rd-minute winner.
The experts’ prediction
Rhysh Roshan Rai (FOX Sports football analyst): “It’ll be fascinating to see how the players continue to respond since Seo Jung-won returned as coach, and they’ve actually been on a decent run of late.
“But, even though Kashima are playing away from home, I expect their quality to shine through and I believe they will make it through to the final.”
Gabriel Tan (FOX Sports Asia football editor): “I’m trying my best to be impartial but I think Kashima have been one of the most-entertaining teams in the competition all season long, and I would really love to see them go all the way.
“Although the matches in the East, especially one of such high stakes, often turn to be battles of attrition, I think Suwon will come out looking to claw back the deficit and I’m expecting an entertaining affair which will finish 2-2, with the Antlers to go through.”