This week sees the first round of the Group Stages of the 2017 ACL and for many of the teams it’s that much awaited first competitive match of the season and the chance to showcase the new additions to the squad. The first round has a couple of matches which even at this early stage could go a long way to deciding who gets out the group and who gets to “focus on the domestic scene”. With last year’s winners Jeonbuk being thrown out of the tournament all Korean eyes will be on ACL regulars Seoul and Suwon Bluewings to see if they can keep the trophy in Korea.
FC Seoul v Shanghai SIPG (Tuesday 21st Feb)
FC Seoul start their Asian Champions League campaign with a home match against Andre Villa Boas’ Shanghai SIPG in what is generally regarded as one of the toughest ACL groups in recent years. Where SIPG are bolstered by players such as Hulk, Carvalho and Oscar, Seoul have seen their squad somewhat depleted with Adriano leaving for pastures new over the close season. Adriano had a fantastic group stage last year and will be undoubtedly be greatly missed with his replacement, Maurinho, hardly an eye-catching capture . With the other two members of the group being Urawa and Western Sydney Wanderers its fair to say that every point is a prisoner and neither team can afford a slow start. Shanghai came through the playoff stage with a rather routine 3-0 win over Sukhothai, Seoul haven’t exactly set the world on fire with their pre-season friendlies, it could all come too quick for the K-League Champions.
Prediction : Draw : Seoul 1 – Shanghai SIPG 1
Kashima Antlers v Ulsan Hyundai (Tuesday 21st Feb)
The second Korean team involved in this year’s ACL are Ulsan Hyundai who found themselves the main beneficiaries of the ACL decision to prohibit Jeonbuk playing in this year’s tournament. Ulsan were promoted to the play-off stage after Jeju automatically moved up to take Jeonbuk’s place. They had a rather tense affair against Kitchee when the match went to penalties, this really was a match that they should be winning without too much huff and puff but I guess you can excuse them as they really didn’t get a whole lot of time to prepare. Ulsan make a welcome return to the ACL having last competed in 2014 when they failed to qualify from the group stages. They start their campaign with a tough trip to Japan to face J-League title holders and Fuji Xerox Cup winners Kashima Antlers. The main talking point of the match will undoubtedly be Kwon Sun Tae making his first appearance against a Korean team since his winter transfer from Jeonbuk. Ulsan themselves have seen a few new faces arrive in the close season with Mislav Orsic and Lee Jong Ho being two huge additions to their squad. As mentioned they did struggle against Kitchee and Kashima will be a tough nut to crack away. Brisbane Roar and Muangthong United make up the rest of Group E so they might just view this one as being “loseable”
Prediction: Home Win : Kashima 2 – Ulsan 0
Kawasaki Frontale v Suwon Bluewings (Wednesday 22nd Feb)
Korean cup winners Suwon Bluewings will head to Japan to start their ACL campaign and must be hoping for a better showing in the group stages this year than last year when they lost out on away goals to Melbourne Victory. They have strengthened quite a bit over the close season and seem to be building a team for an assault on the K-League title, signings such as Matt Jurman and Shin Hwa Young should more than compliment the squad which clinched the FA Cup to end the 2016 season. They seem to have managed to keep the prolific Jonathon in their ranks and on his day he is one of the deadliest in the K-League. This match will see Jung Sung Ryong line up against his old team for the first time since his J-League switch. Kawasaki finished 3rd in the J-League last year and will be no pushovers and considering the other teams making up the group are Chinese giants Guangzhou Evergrande and Hong Kong’s Eastern it will almost certainly come down to the head-to-head between these two. Hopefully Bluewings will have learned from last year’s harsh lessons and be a little more focused in their home matches.
Prediction : Draw : Bluewings 1 – Kawasaki 1
Jeju United v Jiangsu FC (Wednesday 22nd Feb)
Our final Korean team in action are Jeju United who embark on relatively unknown territory as they make only their second ever appearance in the ACL, the first of which was back in 2011.They qualified courtesy of finishing third in the K-League and then were moved into Jeonbuk’s place after they were expelled. They had a good season last year and will be hoping to build on a rather surprising third place spot this year. They strengthened their squad by adding Frederic Mendy from Ulsan whilst bringing Aleksander Jovanovic back from China. They also signed the experienced Park Jin Po from Seongnam which should add some steel to their often leaky defence. In Jiangsu FC, they face a tough opening game against such big names as Ramires, Martinez and Teixeira as well as continuing the ex-player theme by coming face to face with Hong Jeong Ho. Add in Adelaide United and Gamba Osaka and they have a really tough group which they will do well to get even close to qualification from to be honest. They are difficult to beat on the island in the domestic scene but bringing that form into the ACL is a different kettle of fish altogether.
Prediction : Away Win : Jeju 1 – Jiangsu 3