Analysis: WSW v FC Seoul

Western Sydney Wanderers will head to South Korea next week looking to become just the second Hyundai A-League club to reach an AFC Champions League (ACL) final.

With the first leg set to be hosted by FC Seoul, the Wanderers will have the advantage of playing at home second and will hope a boisterous home support can help them across the line.

But first, Western Sydney must at least survive in the South Korean capital up against a very similar side, if Wanderland is to weave its magic yet again.

Seoul, who also play in red and black, rely on a strong defence and a physically-powerful group of players for their success.

They will provide a different challenge for Western Sydney, who are used to conceding the majority of possession, as Seoul may well allow the Australians to have the ball for long periods over the two matches.

So how will Wanderers coach Tony Popovic approach the away leg on Wednesday? And what will Western Sydney need to do to emulate Adelaide United’s achievements of 2008.

Speed and strength vital in Seoul

Popovic has had a clear game-plan when playing away in his maiden ACL campaign. The 41-year-old has preferred a physically-imposing back four, protected by his customary pair of holding players, while he has relied on speed up front to stretch the opposition.

In Western Sydney’s five matches on the road in Asia, Popovic has been willing to pack his defence with natural centre-backs, with Daniel Mullen and Anthony Golec regularly deputising at full-back.

In the group stage, Dean Heffernan started three matches in defence. Jerome Polenz and Adam D’Apuzzo – Popovic’s favourite full-backs at Hyundai A-League level – barely played on the continental stage.

Looking back at the Wanderers’ line-up in their quarter-final second leg in Guangzhou last month, Popovic only played Shannon Cole in defence because of an injury to Mullen – who will be fit for selection against Seoul – with Golec, Brendan Hamill and captain Nikolai Topor-Stanley completing the back four.

Up front, Kwabena Appiah is a lock to play on the right with the 22-year-old having started every away match in the ACL. The speedster scored in Western Sydney’s 2-1 win over Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi last week, as part of an 11-day camp in the United Arab Emirates, and his goal showcased exactly what he brings to Popovic’s team.

Western Sydney won possession in their defensive half and broke quickly, with Appiah bursting onto Mark Bridge’s pass, before calmly slotting his shot past the goalkeeper. With Labinot Haliti on the other flank, Popovic will rely on swift counter-attacks to maintain the Wanderers’ record of having scored in every away match in the ACL.

Santa is coming to town

With Socceroos striker Tomi Juric unavailable through suspension, having picked up a yellow card away to Guangzhou Evergrande for his goal celebration, Popovic will have to turn to Brendon Santalab versus Seoul. Santalab played just 12 minutes in the two legs against Evergrande but as the Wanderers’ equal top scorer in the ACL with three goals – alongside Juric and Haliti – the 32-year-old striker is the obvious replacement up front.

Juric’s absence is a major blow to Western Sydney’s hopes over the next three weeks. The 23-year-old has been in brilliant form, scoring the away goal in China that sent the Wanderers into the ACL’s last four, while he also struck against Juventus for the Foxtel A-League All Stars, which saw him join the Socceroos for Australia’s friendlies against Belgium and Saudi Arabia.

But with Seoul having displayed their defensive prowess in their quarter-final against fellow K League club Pohang Steelers, it could be Shinji Ono and Aaron Mooy that Popovic misses more. Ono and Mooy have departed the Wanderers since the ACL’s round of 16 and their creativity would have been ideal against Seoul’s defence.

Choi Yong-soo’s Seoul did not concede a goal in 210 minutes against Pohang and their back three of Kim Jin-kyu, Kim Ju-young and Lee Woong-hee, with Kim Chi-woo and Cha Du-ri on the flanks, will be tough to open up.

In South Korea, Popovic may not worry too much about breaking down last year’s ACL runners-up but at Parramatta Stadium on October 1, the former Socceroos defender may turn to new Brazilian playmaker Vitor Saba from the start to prise open Seoul’s back door.

Toothless Seoul give Wanderers a shot

After 25 rounds of the 2014 K League season, Seoul sit sixth of 12 teams, having scored only 27 goals. That is the worst record of the top six clubs, while Choi’s men have only scored more than four of their rivals this term.

Seoul finished fourth in the K League last season, while also reaching the ACL final where they lost on away goals to Evergrande. But the key departures of striker Dejan Damjanovic and midfielder Ha Dae-sung to Chinese Super League clubs have left Choi with not much creativity or goal-scoring power at his disposal.

This opens up the tie for Western Sydney, as they managed to hold on for an away-goals triumph against Evergrande’s attacking triumvirate of Alberto Gilardino, Elkeson and Alessandro Diamanti.

Seoul’s main attacking weapons will be attacking midfielder Yun Il-lok and Spain-born Japanese striker Sergio Escudero, who have scored four and three goals respectively in the ACL.

Seoul met Central Coast Mariners in the ACL group stage, winning both matches but needed a slice of luck in both to triumph. In the South Korean capital, a soft penalty put the hosts on the road to a 2-0 victory, while in Gosford, an own goal from John Hutchinson in second-half stoppage time saw Seoul win 1-0.

Looking Ahead

Seoul have not lost in nine games in all competitions but remain well out of the K League title race, 10 points adrift of leaders Jeonbuk Motors with eight games left. As such, Choi can focus 100 per cent on the ACL, in contrast to last season when the capital club were challenging on both the domestic and continental fronts when they took on Evergrande in the deciding tie.

Without their main attacking threat and outside the A-League season, Popovic would surely be happy enough with a point in Seoul, even though he will most likely underline his team’s record of a goal in every ACL match so far. If Western Sydney can return home with the tie still level, they will be odds-on favourites to advance to the final.