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Writers' Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs Kashima Antlers Preview

AFC Champions League 2017 Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs Kashima Antlers
Wednesday evening sees J League Champions Kashima Antlers come to Korea to face Ulsan Hyundai for whom this match is "must-win" fixture to ensure they have a fighting chance at progression. J League Regista's Stuart joins our columnist Matthew Binns to help preview this fixture.

Matthew asks, Stuart answers

Matthew: Kashima’s trip to Australia did not go according to plan and has somewhat opened the group up by letting Brisbane Roar back in. What do you believe went wrong down under and how will the team seek to address it ahead of this match?

Stuart: Yes, it wasn’t Kashima’s finest hour & a half. It is difficult to put a definitive reason behind it because Kashima went with what many people would consider their strongest side. They were without forward Pedro Junior, but a lot of observers like the partnership of Yuma Suzuki & Mu Kanazaki. On that night, they were undone by an individual mistake for the first goal from defender Naomichi Ueda (not to take anything away from Jamie Maclaren’s excellent finish) and a slightly unfortunate ricochet. All in all, it just wasn’t a very good game of football full stop, although a game in which Brisbane probably deserved the points.

Kashima went with their staple 4-4-2 in Brisbane, pairing Suzuki & Kanazaki up top, but I feel that that approach might be changed a little bit for the game in Korea. It wouldn't surprise me greatly to see either Ryota Nagaki or Kento Misao, both holding midfielders, come in for Suzuki and for Kashima to switch to a flexible 4-5-1 given the circumstances of the tie. In that scenario, Antlers would have Pedro Junior & Suzuki on the bench - nice firepower options if they were to need them.  If they did indeed go 4-5-1 or a more defensive 4-2-3-1, watch out for the role of Shoma Doi. He is a capable player across all attacking positions, and played more centrally as a forward in the most recent league games. Doi is adept at finding space in and around the penalty area, so don’t be surprised to see him being utilised as a player looking for the free space.

M: It may still be early days in the new domestic season, but it is very tight at the top of the J League. How much of an affect do you think participating and progressing in the competition could have on Kashima’s domestic campaign? Are they well equipped to battle on multiple fronts?

S: Kashima had started the season in cruise control, winning five of their first six league games but suffered an unexpected and bruising 0-3 home defeat against a Shunsuke Nakamura inspired Jubilo Iwata on Saturday afternoon (if you get a chance, youtube Nakamura’s goal - a rocket left footer into the top corner). Once again, Kashima rested Kwoun Sun-tae but he will almost certainly come back in for the Ulsan match. Also on the bench against Jubilo were Leo Silva, Yuma Suzuki & Pedro Junior - but the worry for Antlers has to be that it was their first choice back four that were done over by a fairly average side. Kashima will have to simply file that defeat under “one of those days.”

I said before the season started that I thought Kashima were Japan’s best team (although looking at Urawa Reds’ free scoring juggernaut, I might have to re-assess that claim in the near future) and I would expect them to be all in on progressing. Their squad isn’t as deep as Urawa’s, but the first team they can field is very good and until injuries & suspensions start to kick in domestically, I wouldn’t expect them to suffer from playing in multiple competitions.

M: If Kashima defeat Ulsan, they end their Korean counterparts involvement in this tournament. Knowing that Ulsan should therefore come out fighting for their lives, how will Kashima look to approach this game?

S: I know this sounds like a cliche, and no manager would ever admit to it, but I think if you gave Kashima a draw before the game, they would take it. No away team has won in this group yet, and to expect it now is kind of going against the grain. But I feel that this game represents a very good chance for Antlers to signal their intentions after a really flat performance in Australia. They’ve already lost in Thailand, and if they were to lose in Ulsan, it would represent an un-holy trinity of away defeats for the Japanese champions.

As I said in one of my previous answers, Kashima have options on their starting line-up, depending on what their objective is. Will it be to go out and seal qualification on the night? Will it be a “look to play on the counter” line-up? Sit back and accept a draw? I’m not quite sure how manager Masatada Ishii will play it, but he rested a few starters in the defeat against Jubilo Iwata (including Korean goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae), and so he has more-or-less a full squad to choose from. Pragmatism or glory? We’re about to find out how much Kashima values the credence of continental honours.

One thing that Kashima might have in mind is that they have a very challenging schedule either side of the final group game (at home to Muang Thong United) as they travel to Urawa the previous Thursday (it is a public holiday in Japan) before hosting fellow high-flyers Vissel Kobe ten days later. Even for a team/squad as battle hardened as Kashima are, to have three huge games in the space of ten days is a big ask. If they can get the job done next Wednesday, they probably should give it a real go.

M: Who will Kashima be looking to in order to make the difference?

S: While Shoma Doi & Yasushi Endo have played well on the flanks for Antlers this year, it all starts with Mu Kanazaki. I think I might have written about him in my piece for the game between these two sides in Kashima. I still think he is the most important player, but I’ll offer up someone different too.

I think centre back Gen Shoji will be very important in this game. As Matt correctly points out, Ulsan will probably feel this is must win for them and so I expect them to press early on. The Shoji-Ueda axis at the back will be vital for Kashima’s chances, but while Naomichi Ueda is prone to momentary lapses, like the one in Brisbane, Shoji is a very consistent defender. He has been linked with a European move (of course to the Bundesliga - seemingly where all Japanese talent goes these days) but Shoji is probably worthy of trying to make that step. Good in the air, tenacious & able to read the read the game well, Shoji will be a key factor in determining the outcome of the game.

M: How do you see this match playing out?

S: I see two very different teams taking the field. One knows that winning is basically the only option, while the other will sit back and play it cool on the counter but I think we will see the points head back to Japan in this one. My feeling is that it will be tight affair in which the teams will be separated by a solitary goal, and I'll throw in just for good measure that Kwoun Sun-tae will be looking to play well on his return to Korea. I’ll go for an away win by a score of 0-1.

Stuart's Predicted Score: Ulsan Hyundai 0-1 Kashima Antlers

Stuart asks, Matthew Binns

Stuart: This is a pivotal game in Group E. If Kashima win, they will eliminate their hosts, so do you think Ulsan will treat this as a must win game? 

Matthew: It certainly would be careless for Ulsan to give up control of their own fate by not aiming to win this game. If they draw on Wednesday and are then required to make a lengthy trip to Australia for nothing but a victory, in addition to relying on a favourable result between Kashima Antlers and Muangthong United, then it would be a minor miracle if they squeeze through.

Whether they will play for the win from the start though would be a different matter. There is an argument for treading cautiously, ensuring that the defence is not too exposed to the threat posed by Kashima. They will have to try and create a goal from somewhere, but I do not expect them to go "gung-ho" unless time is running out.

Stuart: All six of Ulsan's goals in this group came in the 6-0 win over Brisbane. Why did it all come together that night, and how do they go about replicating that goalscoring threat against Kashima?

M: I think, while Ulan's performance was certainly superb that evening, there is the rather large caveat of Brisbane Roar's away form in this competition (or any team in this group for that matter). Not all Australian teams perform badly on foreign shores in this tournament, but trips to Korea and Japan can often seem to prove difficult due to the long travel time. This is particularly pertinent in the group stages when the A League clubs are towards the crucial, latter end of their season compared to fresh players coming out of pre-season for many other nations. The 6-0 drubbing on a Tuesday evening in Korea was fresh off the back of a 2-1 defeat to Wellington Phoenix the weekend prior. The team also had quite a number of injury concerns during that period as well. They also lost heavily when they played Kashima Antlers in Japan, but had least came off an extended break before that match.

There is still a lot to credit Ulsan with on that evening though. It was the second game with all their new signings involved (the first being an encouraging defeat to Kashima) and perhaps there was still some new season optimism in the squad. Interestingly the tactics they played were slightly different to how they have approached the majority of the season, fielding a 4-2-3-1 to great effect. That evening, both wingers Kim In-sung and Orsic grabbed a brace, terrorising both flanks.

S: A glance at the K-League table sees Ulsan in midtable with a rather uninspiring 2-2-3 record. What can we read into their lacklustre domestic form heading into this contest? 

M: As alluded to in our previous Writers' Chat, I felt what this Ulsan side needed was time. It has been seven rounds, but with the five Champions League outings added in, you would expect them to be showing signs of delivering on their promise by now.

Saturday saw them lose 5-0 to a team who had only picked up three points all season prior to kick off, Jeonnam Dragons. Whilst some players were rested or did not feature such as Lee Jong-ho, Kovacec, Petratos and Jung Jae-yong, there was still enough talent on the pitch to have not capitulated in the way they did. In some respects, they were forced chase the game from early on after going behind from a soft penalty call, but to then proceed to concede a further four beggars belief. Jeonnam simply sat back, pressured them quickly and then broke quickly and effectively when in possession.

Manager Kim Do-hoon also does not inspire too much confidence. His first role was as Incheon United manager, a position he lost last Autumn after picking up less than a point per game in 2016, although the argument perhaps could have been that he did not have a wealth of resources there. He was hired at Ulsan before ACL was unexpectedly confirmed and may be struggling with far greater expectations and higher quality players than first envisaged when he accepted the role. Again, I feel it is too early into his tenure to lay all the blame at his door, but the inconsistency shown across all fronts by this Ulsan team has often been consistent with various tactical changes that have not always paid off. Perhaps he is still trying to figure out his strongest eleven, whilst also rotating to keep them fresh.

S: Who should Antlers keep an eye from Ulsan?

M: Despite having also mentioned him last time in our previous chat, Mislav Oršić is perhaps the most exciting player in the team and most capable of making something happen. He tends to dribble forward with pace and purpose, providing the supply to the front line who have not always been able to convert. Still, he was one of a few who put in a strong performance in Ulsan's mauling at the weekend and has looked relatively good for most of the season. The 24 year-old Croatian has scored two goals in this competition so far and once in the domestic campaign.

The same record can be said for Kim In-sung who tends to man the opposite flank. Both him and Oršić dominated in the aforementioned rout against Brisbane Roar and they will need to be back at their best if they are to help their team come away with something midweek.

Finally, as mentioned above, there will be some hope that the exclusion of a number of players for the weekend's Jeonnam match, such as last season's main man Kovacec or the recently signed Lee Jong-ho, will mean they will be well rested and raring to go ahead of this game.

S: A prediction?

M: Yet again, I find myself reiterating that this Ulsan side do have the components of a strong team, but it is beginning to look like this competition is a step too far for them at present. While they will no doubt fight to stay in contention, I sadly think their time in the tournament is coming to an end. Kashima boast a far stronger, more cohesive unit which should just about edge out the Korean side, bringing their continental ambitions to a close. If they do go out on Wednesday, then hopefully it will prove to be a blessing in disguise as they can then shift their focus onto getting their lagging domestic campaign back on track.

Matthew's Predicted Score: Ulsan Hyundai 1-2 Kashima Antlers

We'd like to once again extend our gratitude to Stuart for joining us on this piece. For all the latest information and discussion on all things J League, we strongly recommend that you visit their website J League Regista and follow them on Twitter.

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