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playoffs

ACL Group Stage Draw: Ulsan Hyundai


The AFC Champions League groups were drawn December 6th with FA Cup winners Ulsan Hyundai getting put into the rather difficult Group F. Joining them are J League champions Kawasaki Frontale, A League runners up Melbourne Victory, and the winner of the East 3 playoff, which is heavily favored to be Chinese Super League giant Shanghai SIPG. If Ulsan is to better their 2017 performance and make it out of the group, they'll have a much tougher road to get there this year. 
(Image via UHFC.tv)

ICYMI: Paul Neat and I covered the ACL draw live from the K League United studio:



Group F

Kawasaki Frontale (Japan)
Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea)
Melbourne Victory (Australia)
East 3 Playoff winner (TBD)

Fixtures

Tuesday 13th February - Melbourne Victory (A)
Tuesday 20th February - Kawasaki Frontale (H)
Wednesday 7th March - Winner Play-off East 3 (A)
Tuesday 13th March- Winner Play-off East 3 (H)
Tuesday 4th April - Melbourne Victory (H)
Wednesday 18th - Kawasaki Frontale (A)

Overview

Kawasaki Frontale - J League champions for the very first time, Frontale will be making their sixth appearance in the international competition after a strong showing last year. They finished first in their group, and decidedly finished off Thai giants Muangthong United with a 7-2 aggregate score over two legs. After opening up a 3-1 lead in the quarterfinal first leg against Urawa Reds, Frontale fell apart in the second leg, losing 4-1 to the eventual champions. 30-year-old Japan international Yū Kobayashi led the team in scoring last year with 23 league goals and is aiming to punch his ticket to Russia in the EAFF E-1 Championship this month. He and midfield dynamo Hiroyuki Abe will be the ones to watch.

Melbourne Victory - After a year away, the Victory are back in ACL for the sixth time after finishing second in the 2016/17 A League season. The three time A League champions showed well in 2016, finishing second behind Shanghai SIPG in a formidable group that also included Gamba Osaka and Suwon Samsung Bluewings. They were then narrowly eliminated in the Round of 16 by eventual champions, Jeonbuk Hyundai. Veteran striker Besart Berisha continues to be the man to watch for the Aussie side after leading the team in scoring with 21 goals last season, and four in eight games this year.

Play-off East 3

Bali United - Making their first appearance of any kind in the tournament are the 2017 Indonesia Liga 1 runners-up. In a bit of an oddity, the West Java based Bhayangkara FC won the league and should have been in the playoff, but couldn't get an AFC license, so United are taking their place. Bali led the league in scoring with an astounding 76 goals in 34 games played. Easily leading the league in scoring with 37 goals was Dutch striker Sylvano Comvalius, who now plys his trade for Suphanburi in the Thai League 1. An interesting tie in for K League fans is Korean defender Ahn Byungkeon, who never got a shot in K League, but spent a few years in Thailand before landing with United. With 28 appearances and over 2,300 minutes logged last year, he's certainly become a mainstay with his Indonesian side.

Tampine Rovers - The Singaporian side come to the competition in a similar manner to Bali United. Much like their Indonesian counterpart, they also finished second in the league, but are taking the place of the first place finisher through a technicality. Albirex Niigata finished first in the S.League, but are a satellite team from Japan so they're ineligible for ACL competitions. Unlike Bali, the Rovers aren't strangers to this competition having featured in the playoffs in 2014, and every year since 2016. Unfortunately for The Stags, they've yet to advance past the Preliminary Round. However, with Singapore National Team keeper Mohamad Mahbud between the sticks, Tampine are well set up to make things difficult for opposition. The 27-year-old keeper helped the team to a league second best mark of just 20 goals conceded. Though he only started in 17 of their 24 matches, he held a clean sheet in 11 of them. Bali will indeed have their work cut out for them when the two sides meet on January 16th.

Chiangrai United - Awaiting the winner of the Bali v Tampine playoff are the Thai FA Cup winners, Chaingrai United. Coming off of what was easily their best season in their brief eight year history, the Beetles took home their first T1 hardware with the FA Cup and finished fourth in the league. Led by former Gyeongnam FC and Korean National Team assistant Alexandre Gama, Chiangrai continue their push to break into the elite of the Thai League. A statement they made clear last season signing Tai National Team defender Tanaboon Kesarat to a 50 million baht (₩1.7 billion) deal to keep him in orange. A win against either Bali United or Tampine Rovers to set up a clash against Chinese Super League giants Shanghai SIPG would go a long way to help them get the recognition they're looking for in Asia.

Shanghai SIPG - This year's ACL semifinalists are back in the competition after finishing second in the CSL behind Guangzhou Evergrande. The red half of Shanghai will be fresh in K League fans minds after they beat FC Seoul twice in the group stage this year (1-0 away, 4-2 at home). With international stars like Elkeson, Oscar, and Hulk on their roster, the team hardly needs introduction onto the world stage. What these perennial runners up do need, is some silverware to match their CSL counterparts. Having never won the domestic league, SIPG will be looking to their third appearance in Champions League to claim the title their payroll and experience suggests they should already have. 

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