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Writers Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs Muangthong United Preview

AFC Champions League Preview - Ulsan Hyundai vs Muang Thong United
Tuesday evening's AFC Champions League fixture see Ulsan Hyundai play host to the Thai Champions Muangthong United as both sides continue in their plight to progress to the knock out stages. ESPN FC's Paul Murphy spoke with our columnist Matthew Binns about what supporters can expect when these two teams meet.

Matthew asks, Paul answers

Matthew Binns: Muangthong United currently sit top of the group with four points after two good Champions League performances, in addition to getting off to an explosive start in the league. What are the club’s and supporters expectations for this competition and how highly will progress in the ACL be prioritised alongside their domestic commitments?

Paul Murphy: I think the club and fans would be delighted to get through the group stage, though 3rd would probably be seen as a decent finish. Success in the ACL is a strong focus for Thai clubs as they see themselves as underdogs and really want to bridge the gap to teams in Korea, Japan and China in particular.

The head coach Totchtawan Sripan has been working hard to make rotations to the squad, without upsetting the domestic campaign. Muangthong really want to do well on both fronts and making an impression in the ACL this year is definitely a priority.

MB: Their previous game in this competition saw them defeat Kashima Antlers on home turf, a side many initially expected to be the slight favourites to progress to the knockout rounds. What did you make of the game and can you see the team employing similar tactics when they face Ulsan?

PM: Muangthong really took the game to Kashima in Bangkok and, in the end, deserved the win. They overcame the loss of the injured Teerasil Dangda and Chanathip Songkrasin was outstanding, with Xisco Jimenez also impressive up front. Muangthong were also on the front foot for most of the game at Brisbane Roar so have no fear of adopting an attacking approach - something they are used to in Thailand.

Given Ulsan’s 6-0 victory over Brisbane, there might be some caution over committing to an attacking approach, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Muangthong having the confidence to go for the victory.

MB: It is also worth mentioning this match sees the return of ex-Jeonbuk and Ulsan defensive midfielder Lee Ho who made the switch to Thailand in the winter window. With AFC Champions League winners medals from both clubs, how much of an advantage is his experience to Muangthong United and what are the early impressions of him amongst fans?

PM: Lee Ho has settled well and has steadily gained match fitness. Fans recognise his committed approach and he has made several key tackles and blocks in his role. He was obviously signed for his ACL experience and you could see his leadership qualities in the first two games. He led by example and this inspired his team-mates.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there was some doubt over his fitness for the match in Korea, after coming off injured in the game against Pattaya United in midweek. Muangthong fans will certainly be hoping for a full recovery.

MB: Which key figures will the side be looking to if they are to bring a result back to Thailand with them from this fixture?

PM: Muangthong will expect to come under pressure so goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan will certainly play a key role. Kawin is widely recognised as the best keeper in Southeast Asia and his presence in goal can certainly play a part.

Chanathip has been man of the match in the first two ACL games and the team will look to him for his creativity and quick thinking on the counter attack.

Finally, Xisco has played in England and Spain and his performances so far suggest he has the right temperament to make an impact. Fans will hope that any chances that come Muangthong’s way fall to the former Newcastle United striker.

MB: How do you see this match playing out for Muangthong United?

PM: Muangthong are on a high after an excellent start to the domestic season and proving that they can compete in the ACL. However, they played against a weakened Brisbane Roar in Australia and the Thai champions were more advanced in their season than Kashima in Bangkok.

I think this will represent a tougher challenge than the first two games, being away from home and on the back of a hectic domestic period. The temperament of the players can be suspect when things aren’t going their way - they are used to getting away with indiscipline in the Thai League but ACL referees will not be as lenient.

I can see Muangthong battling hard and making a game of it, but Ulsan are likely to earn the victory.

Paul's Predicted score: Ulsan Hyundai 3 – 1 Muangthong United

Paul asks, Matthew answers

Paul Murphy: What is the perception of Thai football in Korea and is there a danger that Ulsan may underestimate the challenge?

Matthew Binns: With neighbouring leagues such as the consistently decent J League and the high spending Chinese Super League grabbing the majority of Asian football headlines, I would be lying slightly if I said that many people are aware of the Thai Premier League's quality. Having fewer teams entered in the ACL certainly contributes to this and the poor showing of Buriram United last year will not have helped matters. There will be undoubtedly some sections of the support that will underestimate the threat posed by Muangthong United, but hopefully the club's scouts have done their research and Ulsan will be taking the visitors very seriously.

PM: Would anything but a win represent a failure for Ulsan?

MB: With J League champions Kashima Antlers in the group and therefore perhaps being considered the "losable" fixture at the start of the group stage, Ulsan must now ensure they claim a victory here, especially with the match being played on Korean soil. Given what we have seen from Muangthong United so far in this competition however, there would perhaps be no shame in a draw. As evidenced by the champions Jeonbuk last year though, strong home form is key and Ulsan should be looking to take full advantage of being the hosts.

PM: How is Lee Ho seen in Korea, having been marginalised at club level before his move to Thailand?

MB: Last year was difficult for Lee Ho. Rule changes in fielding an U23 player or face a reduced number of substitutes often meant that Lee's Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee had to opt for a younger player in the defensive midfield role if they were to field a more experienced back line. With the emergence of youngster Choi Kyu-baek in the centre of Jeonbuk's defence as the season progressed, Lee Ho finally started seeing game time again which coincided with a summer winning streak that saw Jeonbuk pull fourteen points clear of then second place FC Seoul. Lee's form saw him force his way back in to the Champions League squad in time for the quarter finals but then, shortly after, suffered a season-ending injury in the league.

Lee Ho was always appreciated by the supporters at each club he played at and proved to be a reliable performer in each team he featured. He also had to contend with a bulky Jeonbuk squad last season and, having now won everything in Korea, probably made the correct decision to join Muangthong United. I would imagine he should prove to be a valuable asset to the Thai champions.

PM: Which Ulsan players pose the biggest threat to the Muangthong defence?

MB: Croatian left winger Mislav Oršić signed with Ulsan after progression through the play-offs was confirmed, with his sights firmly set on finally featuring in the AFC Champions League. He provides creativity, pace, dribbling and a goal threat, despite being on the bench this weekend to possibly rest him ahead of this clash. Oršić has already netted twice in his few games, but looks every bit the improvement in class Ulsan required to try and exceed expectations in both this competition and the league.

PM: Do you expect Ulsan to adopt an attacking approach and go for another big win?

MB: Prior to this weekend gone, I did not see Ulsan altering much, but the side switched to a 5-3-2 and was subsequently humbled by Jeju United on Saturday, losing 3-0. Ulsan do have the components of a strong team and should be capable of progressing through this group stage. They are still a swiftly assembled side with a new manager however and appear to be blowing both hot and cold performance-wise as they find their feet. Manager Kim Do-hoon has found mixed success fielding an attacking 4-4-2 in their last three games prior to the Jeju defeat and could very well revert back to it for this match.

Matthew's Predicted Score: Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 Muangthong United

We'd like to extend our thanks once again to Paul Murphy for joining us on this piece. Paul is a Bangkok-based freelance writer for ESPN FC. He has also written for FourFourTwo and These Football Times and has a monthly column in the Thai publication, Hat-Trick magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulmurphyBKK

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