ACL preview: Sydney FC v Pohang Steelers

There could be some good news for Sydney FC with the Steelers in the middle of a monster schedule when they arrive in Australia to face the Sky Blues on Tuesday night, reports Asian football expert @JohnnyDuerden.

“Pohang travel to Sydney with heavy footsteps,” went the headline in the Sports Seoul newspaper at the weekend as Pohang Steelers fell to their first defeat of the 2016 K-League Classic season.

It's perhaps a headline relevant for Sydney FC too after their Hyundai A-League season unravelled even more in the weekend's league loss to former ACL finalist Adelaide United. 

Pohang's unbeaten run was not quite as impressive as it sounds, as it was only the third game of the current campaign that has brought a win, a draw and now the loss at Seongnam FC.

It follows the defeat at home to Graham Arnold's men in the previous round of the 2016 AFC Champions League a few weeks ago. 

Sydney FC celebrate Chris Naumoff's goal against the Pohang Steelers in the ACL.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that loss put a real spanner in the works of the three time Asian champion.

Generally regarded as the least well-equipped of the four Korea Republic teams to tackle commitments at home and overseas, Pohang started well.

After four points, one at Guangzhou Evergrande and a deserved three at home to Urawa Reds, the plan was to defeat Sydney at home and then rest a few players for the long trip to the Harbour City in the hope of getting a point or even nicking a victory.

A point would be seen as a good result and keep the Steelers in a very good position with two games remaining.

The 1-0 defeat however means that coach Choi Jin-cheul faces a dilemna.

Does he take his full-strength squad to Sydney for a gruelling midweek match sandwiched between two weekend league games?

Or does he rest a few and increase the risk of a loss that would make it difficult for the team to progress to the knockout stage?

Pohang coach Choi Jin-cheul.

It makes it more difficult that five days after Sydney, Pohang faces K-League Classic champion Jeonbuk Motors and three days after that, is in action against 2015 runners-up Suwon Bluewings.

Three days after that is a trip to Sangju Sangmu.

With Jeonbuk Motors and FC Seoul starting well, poor results for Pohang could see the team lose vital ground in the title race, assuming the team manages to make a challenge.

This season is Choi's first as a club coach and it is choices like this that make club coaching a different game than the national Under-17 side he was previously involved in.

The signs are that it will be an under-strength team that comes to Australia.

“There are some players who have not played much so far this season,” said Choi after the loss to Seongnam.

“I am thinking about giving them an opportunity to play.”

Pohang Steelers star Shim Dong-woon

He outlined his reasons why. “We have a long trip to Australia. If we put all our effort into the game with Sydney then it could have a negative impact on the three games we have coming up after that.”

For a full-strength Pohang, a point would not be a bad result but it would be a great one for the second string team that is likely to take the field.

It would still leave finishing in the top two in their own hands.

Next comes a home game against Guangzhou Evergrande and it all ends with a trip to Japan and Urawa Reds. It is a gamble but it is one that could come off.

But the team will have to improve in what all agree was an insipid showing three weeks ago against the Sky Blues. That defeat still rankles.

“We didn't really get going,” said Choi. “We started slowly, made a mistake to concede the goal and could not create the opportunities we wanted.”

Pohang were disappointed at how Sydney were able to dominate the contest physically and are determined to produce a better showing at Allianz.

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

With Son Jun-ho, the all-action midfielder suspended for the first leg, linking up with the talented Moon Chang-jin, one of Korea's brightest young talents, it could have been a great opportunity for fans in Sydney to see two of the K-League's best midfielders.

Neither is likely to make the trip but Pohang still has the proudest history of any club in Asia and will be fighting to take something home from Moore Park on Tuesday night.

And after a horror season at Sydney FC where they've missed the playoffs, Graham Arnold will, likewise, be desperate to give the home fans something to cheer about.