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Writers' Chat: Muangthong United vs Ulsan Hyundai Preview

AFC Champions League 2017 Preview: Maungthong United vs Ulsan Hyundai

Wednesday evening sees K League Classic outfit Ulsan Hyundai travel to Thailand to face Thai Premier League champions Muangthong United for the fourth round of group games in the AFC Champions League. With the group still fairly open between the top three teams, victory here could prove vital to either sides' progression chances to the knockout rounds. Our columnist Matthew Binns is once again joined by ESPN FC's Paul Murphy to preview this fixture.

Paul asks, Matthew answers

Paul Murphy: How did Ulsan and the Korean press respond to dropping two points at home to Muangthong? Was it seen as a poor performance and result?

Matthew Binns: With certainly no disrespect aimed at Muangthong United, the games against them and Brisbane Roar were perhaps targeted as the fixtures Ulsan Hyundai would need to win as it was perhaps envisaged that Kashima Antlers would be the most difficult team in the group. With the points being dropped on home turf, there will be probable disappointment as the trip to Thailand looks set to be a difficult task given Muangthong's performances in this and domestic competition.

PM: Which (if any) Muangthong players stood out for Korean fans in the goalless draw?

MB: Apart from a decent chance at the end of each half, nearly all of Ulsan Hyundai's shots were limited to outside the area. Whilst the finger can be pointed partially at the home side's tactics being unable to spread the Muangthong defence, credit must also be given to the discipline, rigidity and understanding the visitor's back line demonstrated throughout the ninety minutes. As the game entered the final throws, I could see little chance of Ulsan breaking the deadlock.

In terms of individuals, whilst there were fewer attacks for the visitors, I thought their most dangerous players on the pitch were Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda. In the few chances Muangthong had, one of these two always seemed to be involved and I expect their contribution to be heightened if the home side plans to be more attacking.

PM: Do you expect Ulsan to be going for the three points in this game?

MB: I think Ulsan really has no choice but to go all out if they are to progress into the knockout stages. The home games have to be won to stand a chance. Having now dropped two points to Muangthong United in Korea, and more importantly not surpassing them in the standings because of it, a victory here will at least ensure Ulsan keep control over their own fate, regardless of what happens elsewhere. A draw in Thailand would have been deemed acceptable when the competition got underway, but with a long trip to Australia coming up (a place where K League teams notoriously struggle), ensuring all available points are earned on Wednesday night is vital.

PM: The crowd in Ulsan was extremely small and there will certainly be a much higher attendance at Muangthong. Does this reflect fan apathy towards the ACL or was it a lack of engagement with the Muangthong fixture?

MB: Despite physical alterations and improvements to the stadium in the off-season in a bid to improve the match day experience, the crowd has been unusually sparse when it comes to this competition. After three K League games at home, the club averages a crowd of 10,856. When the Champions League statistics are looked at however, they have averaged just 1,824 after three home games (this drops to 1,315 if you discount the play-off round and just consider the group games). The K League attendances are evidence that there is somewhat of an appetite still for football in Ulsan, so for there to be such a sharp contrast is concerning. I would certainly not point the finger at Muangthong United fixture as the cause though, and I would be slightly reluctant to blame it on ACL apathy.

One major factor is the stadium's location. Like most grounds built with the 2002 World Cup in mind, they tend to be inconveniently located on the edge of the city, requiring a lengthy bus ride from the centre to get there. With recent games also being on cold winter evenings, the crowds were always predicted to be down in comparison to weekends. That said, the Champions League attendances are still roughly 1,000 lower on average than their last ACL group outing back in 2014, so perhaps the club's frequent uninspiring performances last season have not captured the imagination in this campaign as much as the club would have hoped. Certainly the near 3,000 fans who braved a dull 120 minutes on a February evening to see their club limp past Hong Kong outfit Kitchee in the play-off stages likely had their expectations quickly lowered for this tournament. Unfortunately, the uninspiring showing against Muangthong United last time out will only have served to confirm these possible preconceptions.

PM: How do you see the match playing out?

MB: Despite the eye-catching signings, odd flash of encouragement and the occasional convincing result, Ulsan are still yet to see their campaign fully take off on both this and their domestic front.  It needs to click now though if they are going to keep their destiny in this competition within their own hands. Sadly, when also considering their stuttering league form, I am not sure if I can envisage that happening by Wednesday.

Matthew's Score Prediction: Muangthong United 1-1 Ulsan Hyundai

Matthew asks, Paul answers

Matthew Binns: After the international break, Muangthong United finally fell to Buriram United, dropping their first points of their campaign and conceding their first league goals. What led to such a defeat and is there anything Ulsan can learn from that game in preparation for their trip to Thailand?

Paul Murphy: I think Muangthong’s defeat at Buriram was simply a case of being outfought by the hungrier side on the day. Obviously, people have pointed to Muangthong’s hectic schedule in addition to the participation of the bulk of their first team with the international squad. However, there was a six-day break from the Thailand game in Japan to the Buriram match, so I don't think that fatigue was behind the loss.

Buriram expect to challenge for the title this season so their victory was not a huge upset.

If Ulsan can learn anything, it is that, domestically, Muangthong are not used to a team having a real go at them. Buriram took the game to them from the start, put them under pressure and got their reward. Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan has gone from conceding one goal in nine games to conceding nine in three games (including two internationals). That might just make him feel more vulnerable.

MB: When these two teams faced each other in Ulsan, supporters were made to endure a goalless draw with thrills somewhat few and far between. Do you think Muangthong United would have felt slightly disappointed not to have taken more from the game or would they have been pleased with the draw?

PM: The draw in Ulsan was a good result for Muangthong, especially when you consider that the Korean side had put six past Brisbane Roar in the previous ACL match. The Thai champions missed a great opportunity for an away win when they created and missed several chances in Brisbane. However, taking a point in South Korea was considered a job well done.

MB: Who will Muangthong look to in order to make the difference in this clash?

PM: Theerathon Bunmathan has a key role to play in all of the ACL games as he acquired a considerable amount of experience in the competition with Buriram. He led by example with the opening goal in the memorable win over Kashima Antlers on Matchday Two and the left-back’s contribution from set pieces could be vital.

As always, the creative talents of Chanathip Songkrasin will be important to the Kirins. ‘Messi Jay’ had a quiet game in South Korea but was man of the match against both Brisbane and Kashima. His ability to find space and pick a pass may be vital to Muangthong creating enough chances to win.

MB: Are there any concerns for the Thai champions heading into this game?

PM: The main concern for the Thai side is that their players have lost the momentum of an unbeaten team since the teams played in South Korea. Muangthong had gone 17 games unbeaten domestically before the defeat to Buriram and two emphatic defeats in World Cup qualifying will have hurt those playing for the national side.

It remains to be seen how this will affect confidence on the day but, in contrast to last month, the Thai champions are not coming into this match as a team that is unfamiliar with losing.

MB: How do you see this match playing out?

PM: I think both teams will be looking to win this. Ulsan will feel that they should have won the home game and will see this as an opportunity to undo the damage done by that result. Muangthong, on the other hand, know that home victories are key to progression in the tournament and a win here would go a long way to help them qualify for the last 16.

If both sides adopt an attacking approach, it could make for a very entertaining match and I can’t see another 0-0 stalemate.

Paul's Score Prediction: Muangthong United 2-2 Ulsan Hyundai 

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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