Steve Corica may have quietly built the A-League’s best team, but Wednesday’s clash with Ange Postecoglou’s reigning J.League champions will be the toughest test of his coaching career.
“Even as the away side we want to play our football and overwhelm teams,” said Keita Endo after Yokohama F. Marinos had just beaten three-time defending K League champions Jeonbuk 2-1 in their AFC Champions League group stage opener in Jeonju.
The scoreline didn’t exactly paint the whole picture, because Postecoglou’s high-octane outfit battered the South Koreans from start to finish.
From as early as the fifth minute when the visitors’ Japanese-Nigerian striker Ado Onaiwu forced a one-handed save out of Song Bum-keun in the Jeonbuk goal, F. Marinos had their opponents rocking.
They played through Jeonbuk’s attempts to press at will, with the shell-shocked South Koreans reduced to trying to hit the visitors on the break.
And even if Endo’s 32nd-minute opener was somewhat atypical – he volleyed home Teruhito Nakagawa’s looping cross following a long throw – it came about because Jeonbuk simply couldn’t cope with Yokohama’s relentless pressure.
The point was rammed home when the unfortunate Kim Jin-su slid home into his own net from an Endo cross five minutes later, while Jeonbuk midfielder Son Jun-Ho and defender Lee Yong were both sent off for two bookable offences following one foul too many.
Jeonbuk, who won the Champions League as recently as 2016, simply had no answers for Postecoglou’s mesmerising F. Marinos side.
All of which spells trouble for Sydney FC.
But it should also represent an opportunity, because as impressive as this F. Marinos side is going forward, they’re far from infallible.
They’ve played only two competitive games so far this season: the Japanese Super Cup, which they lost on penalties to Vissel Kobe after a wild 3-3 draw and even wilder shoot-out, and the Champions League win in Jeonju.
Postecoglou expects his goalkeepers to play a high defensive line as sweeper-keepers, but both last year’s league-winning goalkeeper Park Il-gyu and his deputy Yuji Kajikawa have already conceded avoidable goals this season.
After he was sent off in Yokohama’s title-winning final game against FC Tokyo last season, Park was sold short by defender Thiago Martins in the recent Super Cup defeat, the Brazilian gifting a back pass straight to Kobe striker Kyogo Furuhashi to roll into an unguarded net.
“They’re human beings, they’re going to make mistakes,” Postecoglou told Japan Times reporter Dan Orlowitz after the match.
“I’ve never worried my whole career about individual mistakes.”
Then it was Kajikawa’s turn to make a similar mistake in Jeonju, racing out of his penalty area in an attempt to intercept a hopeful long punt forward only to get into a tangle with defender Shinnosuke Hatanaka and allow Cho Kyu-seong to drill home.
It will be interesting to see which goalkeeper starts for F. Marinos on Wednesday night.
Equally intriguing will be the sort of tactics Corica’s team adopts on the night. Commit too many players forward and the Sky Blues run the risk of being torn to shreds by the likes of Endo, Nakagawa and pacy Thai defender Theerathon Bunmathan.
But sit back and try to soak up pressure and F. Marinos have the personnel to punish the defending A-League champions regardless.
Whatever the tactics – and with no Milos Ninkovic, the Sky Blues will need Alexander Baumjohann to try and dictate the tempo – we can thank Postecoglou’s presence on the touchline for generating renewed interest in the competition in Australia.
And it would be remiss not to acknowledge Perth Glory as they take on FC Tokyo in the Japanese capital in their first-ever AFC Champions League clash on Tuesday night as well.
The Gasmen should prove an equally imposing opponent, even if they’re not quite as free-flowing as swashbuckling F. Marinos.
And if Corica is to mastermind a victory over Postecoglou, he’ll need to out-coach him in what looms as Australia’s most anticipated Champions League clash in years.