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ACL Writer's Chat: Shanghai SIPG vs. Ulsan Hyundai

Wednesday night sees Ulsan Hyundai travel to China to take on tournament favourites Shanghai SIPG. It promises to be an entertaining game with both teams having already netted five times in their first two ACL outings. Can Ulsan stand up to Shanghai's millionaire superstars? Our columnist Dan Croydon and Chinese football blogger Richard Whiddington from wildeastfootball.net shared their thoughts ahead of the crucial Group F encounter. 

Dan Asks, Richard Answers

Dan Croydon: Of course it is early days but what has pleased you about Shanghai's performances so far in 2018? And do they have any concerns? 

Richard Whiddington: Shanghai have started the season firing on all cylinders. The 8-0 mauling of Dalian on the opening weekend of the Chinese Super League was a statement of intent for a side desperate to overcome the Guangzhou hegemony (a side that has won the seven consecutive championships).  They also know a win over Ulsan virtually guarantees progress to the knockout stages of the ACL and they will be keen to do so in front of a packed Shanghai Stadium. Particularly pleasing so far this year is a reinvigorated Hulk, who seems willing to help out defensively, and the seamless nature with which new manager Vitor Pereira has taken over the reins.

For much of last season, SIPG’s defensive imbalance meant the onus often fell on the side’s attacking trio to outgun the opposition (the 5-5 quarter-final against Guangzhou Evergrande was one such example). So far, Pereira has been intent on tightening up the backline and seems to be doing a sound job, though it is far too early to feel confident.

DC: Shanghai reached the semi-finals of this competition last season before losing to eventual winners Urawa Red Diamonds. Can they go one better this season and make it to the final?

RW: After the thrill of overcoming domestic rivals Guangzhou Evergrande, losing in the semi-finals to Urawa Red Diamonds was of course a disappointment – though such sentiments go some way to explain the meteoric rise of a club that essentially rebooted in 2015. Provided SIPG’s key players stay fit and can negotiate the awkward mid-season World Cup pause, Vitor Pereira will believe the side can go all the way in his first season in charge.

DC: Most readers will be very familiar with the quality of Shanghai's Brazilian trio of Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson. But is there another player Ulsan should be concerned about on Wednesday evening? 

RW: The most obvious answer is Wu Lei, China’s would-be once in a generation forward. The 26-year old has genuine synergy with his South American teammates and is in form having scored four goals in the past two games. Equally important, however, is SIPG’s ability to field four foreigners, including Uzbek international Odil Ahmedov who, along with the robust Cai Huikang, gives balance and thrust to the side’s midfield.

DC: How do you see Wednesday night's game going?

RW: It is 16 games and counting since SIPG last lost at home. Confidence will be sky-high on the back of Saturday’s demolition of Dalian and complacency, the old adage typically thrust in the face of high-flying teams, seems unlikely given the importance of the ACL to the club. It is telling that 3-0 seems a conservative prediction.

Score Prediction: Shanghai SIPG 3-0 Ulsan Hyundai

Richard Asks, Dan Answers

RW: How has the season started for Ulsan?

DC: It's been a promising but somewhat confusing start to the year for Ulsan, as reflected in the team's results - a win, a loss and a draw from their first three competitive games. The victory at home over Kawasaki Frontale in Matchday 2 was impressive as the Horangi's high tempo tactics proved the difference against the J.League champions. But then came the 2-0 defeat to Jeonbuk on the opening day of the K League. Manager Kim Do-hoon seemed to fall back into his old negative habits as his side sat deeper and deeper, hoping to cling on for a draw. Of course Jeonbuk's pressure eventually told and an individual error from Junior gave Jeonbuk the win. It seems Kim still can't help tinkering with his lineup either. There was many a raised eyebrow last week when he gave a debut up front to 19 year old Oh Se-hun. Unsurprisingly the young forward struggled to get into the game against the K League Champions and he was subbed after an hour. So yes, a mixed bag so far.   

RW: Ulsan were knocked out in the ACL group stage last year. How has the team progressed since that disappointment? 

DC: It's early days of course but Ulsan do seem more of an attacking threat this time around. Last year they finished behind Muangthong United in the group stage, having failed to score against the Thai team both home and away. Those attacking problems persisted all season. But over the winter Kim Do-hoon did add some quality to the side in the shape of Park Joo-ho and Yohei Toyoda, while winger Mislav Orsic looks a more confident player than he did at the back end of last season. Early signs are that the Tigers are a far more entertaining team this year, at least in the ACL.

RW: Ulsan has started strongly with a credible point Down Under and that home win over Kawasaki Frontale. What are realistic expectations for the 2018 AFC Champions League?

The Horangi have nothing to fear this year as there is no real pressure for them to do well in the Champions League; and it shows, as they've played with  greater freedom and fluidity. If they score more goals like those we've seen from Orsic and Lee Young-jae, who knows what the team is capable of?  Realistically though, Shanghai SIPG look a very strong team again this year, so Ulsan will be eyeing the second qualifying place in Group F. They will be confident of beating Melbourne at home in Matchday 5, which means the final group game away at Kawasaki looks like it will decide who goes through to the next round.

RW: SIPG are perhaps the most formidable attacking team in this year’s competition How will Ulsan set up? 

My heart wants Kim Do-hoon to go for it and name the same XI that hustled and harried Kawasaki high up the pitch. But my head says he will go negative again and try to contain the likes of Oscar and Hulk. Ulsan have had the personnel to do that for a while, but we know all too well, it only takes one mistake and then you are left chasing the game. Unfortunately it will probably be an exercise in damage limitation. I just can't see the Tigers coming back across the Yellow Sea with anything but a few wounds to lick.

Score prediction: Shanghai SIPG 2-0 Ulsan Hyundai

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