Writers Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs Kitchee SC AFC Play-Off Preview
Matthew asks, Christopher answers
Matthew Binns: Touching upon the recent friendly tournament in Hong Kong, Kitchee featured alongside Oceanic champions Auckland City, Thai Champions Muang Thong United and K-League champions FC Seoul in the Lunar New Year Cup. How beneficial will it have been to the side to play in a competition with this calibre of opponent ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Ulsan?
Christopher KL Lau: The Lunar New Year Cup for Kitchee could be viewed as a blessing in disguise though some would argue otherwise. Kitchee have had a busy schedule in the lead up to the winner-takes-all game against Ulsan and they have had a series of domestic cup and league games as well as the taxing game against Hanoi which could have placed a strain on their squad. Kitchee did well in the majority of these games but of course, tiredness is always a factor. Fortunately, in the Lunar New Year Cup, for their first game against Muangthong United, they rested many first team players and then in the final against Auckland City, they gave most of their strongest team a run out. Luckily all the players came through without a scratch and had the chance to play against top quality opposition, whom have had either Asian Champions League or FIFA World Club championships experience, which will prove to be invaluable.
MB: Which player or part of this Kitchee side will be of most concern to Ulsan coming into this clash?
CL: Lam Ka Wai is “Mr Kitchee” and the creative hub of the midfield and he has been with the club for as long as anyone can remember. Lam has great vision and can play the most decisive of passes and he will be one of the key danger men on the night.
Striker Alex Akande, the naturalised Hong Kong international, limped off injured against Hanoi and will be a real loss to the Kitchee attack (True at time of publication, but Akande has since traveled with the squad to Korea. It remains to be seen if he'll feature - Ed) though fellow Hong Kong International striker Sandro, is on form and will be a handful for any defenders. If Ulsan can shackle these two players then Kitchee’s striking options will be weakened.
MB: Do you feel there any weaknesses which the Korean side may look to exploit?
CL: Kitchee have never had such a great opportunity as this one to progress to the Champions League group stages so there is a lot of pressure to perform as opportunities like this are far and few between. This is an away game against a proven K League team with champions league pedigree so this lack of experience at this level will either overwhelm Kitchee or inspire them to greater heights.
Kitchee have also made some new signings in the form of defenders Kim Dong Jin, Kim Bong Jin and the Hungarian midfield signing Krisztian Vadocz and they seem to have settled so it will be important to see if they all gel together in such a short period of time. The Kitchee keeper, Wang Zhenpeng, is a solid keeper, though seems to occasionally let a grand occasion unnerve him so Ulsan will be hoping this will be one of those moments.
MB: While Ulsan are considered favourites for this fixture, upsets do happen. If Kitchee are going to reach the group stages, how will they need to approach this match?
CL: Kitchee played 4-3-3 in their last ACL game against Hanoi and Fernando, Sandro and Lam Ka Wai formed a formidable attack with Sandro at the head so Kitchee will create chances but it remains to see how many they convert. Kitchee have a solid midfield with Huang Yang who has been sensational on the left combined with the fearless Lo Kwan Yee on the right. Kitchee have had some defensive lapses in the past where they can concede goals recklessly so if the defensive unit keeps tight and they maintain their concentration then Kitchee could have a chance of going through.
MB: How do you see this playing out?
CL: Kitchee have gone through a roller coaster of emotions in terms of Champions League participation; from believing they had a group place already with the withdrawal of champions Eastern, to finding out that they had to go through two qualifying games after Eastern were re-instated. This sense of injustice could give them the mental fortitude to go to South Korea to get a result. As mentioned, if Kitchee can hold their shape defensively and provide a solid base then they have the firepower to snatch a vital goal or two.
Christopher's Predicted Score: Ulsan Hyundai 2-2 Kitchee SC (Kitchee to win on penalties)
Christopher asks, Matthew answers
Christopher KL Lau: As the K League is one of the strongest leagues in the Asia Pacific, do South Korean football fans see this game as simply a formality for Ulsan Hyundai to progress to the group stages?
Matthew Binns: I would be lying slightly if Ulsan's participation in the group stages had not been treated as given by some. However, despite finishing fourth last year, they did at times struggle to get going, often finding goals difficult to come by. They scored the second fewest goals in the league and often relied upon their defence to claim the points. This can be further evidenced by the fact six of their twelve league draws were goalless and only two of their thirteen wins were by more than a margin of one goal. With key components of that defence having now moved on and been replaced, the sale of three of their top five scorers in 2016, and a new manager to top it all off, it is difficult to predict how Ulsan will set up and perform in their first competitive clash of the year.
CL: Ulsan Hyundai won the Champions League in 2012. Is there anyone left from that famous victory either as a player or in the management who will be involved in the game against Kitchee?
MB: With Kim Young-sam retiring in the off-season, there is nobody left who played in that final triumph. The only player still on the books who was at the club in 2012 is 33 year-old defender Kim Chi-gon, but he did not feature in the club's victorious Champions League campaign having returned from military mid-season. He would play in the Club World Cup shortly after, but that competition proved quite forgettable with the Korean side returning home after two defeats. Players could certainly benefit from having this experience within their ranks, but there is also the advantage of not being burdened with their predecessor's achievements.
Ulsan do have a number of personnel who have lifted the trophy though. Having signed three Jeonbuk players in December, there is some winning experience there, although admittedly only right back Kim Chang-soo featured considerably. They also have midfielder Kim Jung-hwan who won the competition in 2010 with Seongnam, although he only made six appearances last season and is unlikely to be relied on out on the pitch. Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon was also the assistant manager in that Seongnam victory and may be able to draw from his experience.
CL: Given all the changes going on about who will represent South Korea (after Jeonbuk were expelled) in the Champions League 2017, do you think Ulsan Hyundai are mentally and emotionally well-prepared for the game?
MB: I suppose it was always a possibility that they could still feature once the ACL established its Entry Control Body to investigate Jeonbuk on December 22nd, therefore I would like to think they had some kind of contingency plan in place. That said, it certainly disrupts their pre-season training regime as the manager has already bemoaned. Ulsan did originally have all of February to ready themselves for the upcoming league campaign. Given the new players may have had less time than expected to work together, and that the club traded two of their best defenders to Jeonbuk (who ironically moved with Champions League football in mind), Kitchee may not get a better opportunity to cause an upset than the one which will be presented to them on Tuesday night.
CL: Which Ulsan player should pose the greatest threat to Kitchee on the night?
MB: While my eyes might be focused on a personal favourite of mine, the newly acquired and highly persistent Lee Jong-ho, there's little doubt that Ulsan's greatest asset will prove to be Ivan Kovačec. The Croatian attacking midfielder has featured fairly regularly for Ulsan since joining a year and a half ago, tormenting his opponents down the wing and scoring seven and six goals in both of his seasons respectively. However, while his goals are no doubt valuable, he also does reasonably in the club's assist charts, totalling six in 2015 and nine in 2016. Considering Ulsan only scored 41 times in the league last season, this means he had a direct hand in just over a third of the club's goals.
MB: Despite a few creeping doubts about how ready Ulsan are for competitive football at this moment in time, I still feel relatively confident they possess the individual quality within their ranks to overcome the threat posed by Kitchee here. Whilst some key names have departed, they have bought reasonably well and it will be more of a question of how these acquisitions have settled in pre-season. I doubt Kitchee will go down without a fight though, so I expect Ulsan's victory to be typically narrow.
Matthew's Predicted Score: Ulsan Hyundai 1-0 Kitchee SC
We would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to Christopher KL Lau for joining us on this particular piece. Christopher is a writer and photographer for Offside.HK and Wild East Football. You can follow his exploits on Twitter by clicking here.
Offside.HK is Hong Kong's first English platform for local football, featuring an array of news, features, recaps and interviews with the objective to help English speakers engage in the domestic scene. We highly recommend you visit their website and follow them on Twitter.
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POLL: Who will progress to the group stages in tomorrow's #ACL2017 play-off? Preview: https://t.co/sROznNCsPX— Matthew Binns (@Matt_Binns) February 6, 2017