ACL preview: Pohang Steelers v Sydney FC

Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden analyses Sydney FC’s K-League opponent Pohang Steelers ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting at the Steelyard.

Pohang Steelers are the most successful team in Asian history with three championships to their name, the most recent of which came in 2009.

These days though, the team is probably the weakest of the four Korea Republic representatives. The purse-strings are fairly tight (Graham Arnold’s comment that Pohang has a budget 30 times that of Sydney is way, way off the mark). 

There are no big name foreigners, and only one non-Korean on the books at all.

Coach Choi Jin-cheul is inexperienced and this is his first club job. 

The former international defender who played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, was the man in charge of the South Korea Under-17 team at the recent World Cup. 

Pohang coach Choi Jin-cheul.

After a deserved win over Brazil in the group stage in which the team did not concede, the young Taeguk Warriors were knocked out in the second round.

The game with Sydney is just his fifth competitive game in charge of the club. There was a Asian Champions League play-off win over Hanoi T&T and then a 0-0 draw at Guangzhou and then the deserved win over Urawa Reds to take the team to top.

Choi has played 4-2-3-1 so far in his short time with the club but has been known to play with two or even three up front in past coaching positions. 

He describes himself as pragmatic and while there may be a change for the trip to Australia, at home this is the likely formation.

The 3-3 draw on Saturday in the opening day of the season saw the best and worst of Pohang. 

Two goals down for much of the match and unable to break down a far from strong defence, Pohang kept plugging, got a goal back three minutes from the end then scored two more in injury time to snatch and unlikely win – or so they thought before Gwangju equalised in the 98thminute.

In Asia, the team has yet to concede and has presented a narrow and compact defensive wall especially to Guangzhou in the opening game. 

It was a well-organised display and Pohang look more comfortable against teams coming at them, enabling them to use the speed of their offensive players to counter-attack. 

Pohang Steelers pose for a team photo prior to their ACL clash with Urawa Red Diamonds.

There is more pressure to attack against Sydney as a win could put the Steelers clear at the top ahead of the trip to Australia.

Since the 2009 triumph, Pohang have steadily lost their stars either to richer clubs or the ravages of time. 

Goalkeeper Shin Hwa-yong is still there while most of the older guard who are still there were understudies in the past who have come to the fore as the bigger stars have left.

Coach Choi is still finding his feet and has started with making the team harder to beat. 

The two centre-backs Kim Gwang-seok and Kim Won-il are more of the old-fashioned no-nonsense variety. Strong in the tackle and the air but not ones to bring the ball out of defence to start an intricate passing move.

The rampaging full-backs of the past (Choi Hyo-jin scored a hat-trick against Newcastle Jets in 2009 in a 6-0 win) have been replaced by the more functional Kim Dae-ho and Park Sun-young.

Hwang Ji-su was around in 2009 and is the fulcrum of the team. The captain is one of those K-League players who does not quite make the national team but manages to maintain excellent levels of consistency year upon year.

The defensive midfielder reads the game excellently and those who have success against make sure that Hwang has no time on the ball.

Hwang Ji-Soo

Whether it is building attacks and finding the runs of Shim Dong-woon, the left-sided attacker, and Jang Won-jin on the right ahead of him or breaking up the opposition attacks, Hwang has the experience and the leadership that is sometimes in short supply elsewhere.

He has a talented partner in Son Jun-ho who was the star of the show in the win over Urawa but then got himself sent off and is suspended. A big blow.

At Pohang, the short passing in and around the area is something that the team has long excelled in. 

Attacking midfielders Moon Chang-jin and Shim have a habit of arriving in the area late and getting on the end of a fluid move. Moon especially may not be around for much longer but is regarded as one of the best prospects in the country. 

Keep Moon and Shim quiet then Pohang’s threat is greatly reduced.

Watch out for: Shim Dong-woon. The forward who can play on the left, though can turn up on the right, loves to run at defenders and is adept at finding space in tight areas and getting shots off on goal when defenders least expect. 

Pohang Steelers star Shim Dong-woon

Strength and weaknesses: The midfield trio that sits behind the lone striker is talented. Moon links up very well with the others. The passing and movement is excellent though Pohang’ are guilty of being wasteful in front of goal and lack an out and out goalscorer. Much depends on Serbian striker Lazar Veselinovic, the team’s one foreign player who has yet to impress with understudy Yang Dong-hyun a handful but not a natural goalscorer.

Sydney will be, like Victory, reeling after a poor loss in the A-League over the weekend (a 3-1 loss to Phoenix, one which had the Sydney fans’ boos ringing out around Moore Park at full-time as the Sky Blues top six hopes to another blow). 

Arnold will be looking for a reaction at the Steelyard. And he needs one from his under-fire squad.