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ACL Writers' Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Suwon Samsung Bluewings

It's an all-K League affair this Wednesday as Ulsan host Suwon in the first leg of this Champions League Round of 16 clash.  Suwon topped their group after winning all three of their away games, while Ulsan finished second in theirs with impressive victories over Melbourne and Kawasaki Frontale.  Just three points separate these two in the K League, making this a tough matchup to predict. Nevertheless, Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon and Suwon writer Scott Whitelock did their best to shed some light on what we can expect when these two Korean giants square off on Wednesday night. 
(Images from Kleague.com)

Game: AFC Asian Champions League Round of 16, First Leg
Venue: Munsu Stadium, Ulsan
Kick off: 9th May, 8p.m. KST

Scott Whitelock Asks, Dan Croydon Answers 

Scott Whitelock: Of course, these two met only last week in the league when Ulsan played a very defensive game looking to use their blistering pace on the counter-attack. It almost produced results and Ulsan were unlucky not to score a goal on the night. With this being a home game though, do you think they will set up the same way?

Dan Croydon: No, we should see Ulsan play a more attacking brand of football this time around. I think Ulsan went into that goalless draw last Wednesday with a plan to nick a point whilst also resting some players for the Pohang game on Saturday. It worked well too as they won 2-1, making it ten games on the trot without defeat. With Suwon's excellent away record in this competition though, Ulsan cannot afford to sit back this time.  Kim Do-hoon will be aiming to win, preferably by a couple of goals, then he'll set up his team to defend that lead in Suwon.  That's what should make this first leg exciting for the neutral - both sides should look to attack from kick-off.

SW: You have highlighted Yohei Toyoda’s ineffectiveness before but the Japanese striker managed to score an important goal at the weekend. How do you think he can affect this game?

DC: It was fantastic to see Toyoda score again at the weekend.  He is such a selfless player who constantly works for the team, and his teammates showed their appreciation in the way they celebrated his winning goal on Saturday.  Any time a player joins a new club it takes time to settle in and learn how the team plays. For Toyoda it took a while because he lost his place to Junior after the Brazilian showed some good form coming off the bench.  But injuries have given Toyoda another chance and the big man seems to be grabbing it this time.  He is an out-and-out target man No. 9 who really relishes a battle with the opposition centrebacks.  His physicality and relentless running should cause Suwon some problems, even if he does lack the agility and creativity of some more modern strikers.  

SW: Ulsan have had the edge over Suwon over recent years and have piled up some memorable wins, especially at home. Why do you think they have been able to get one over on their rivals during the last 3-4 years?

It's funny, I only really remember the defeats. I recall Ulsan being knocked out of the FA Cup a couple of seasons back when Suwon got three goals in the last ten minutes.  The two teams seem to be pretty even in stature these days and have forged a strange kind of rivalry over who can pretend to challenge Jeonbuk for the league title the longest.  Unfortunately, Suwon gave up on that a couple of weeks back with that loss in Jeonju, (I'm sure you'll have something to say about that in a moment), while the less said about Ulsan's start to the season the better.  It seems fitting then that the two sides should meet in the ACL, as, along with the FA Cup, it is the only realistic chance of silverware for either team this season. That is of course until the winner is drawn against Jeonbuk.   

SW: So much is riding on this game and neither team will want to give anything up before the 2nd leg next week. How do you see this game going?

DC: Ulsan are certainly in form at the moment. Ten games unbeaten and a morale-boosting victory over local rivals Pohang mean the Horangi should be favourites to win on the night. But they have a strange habit of conceding soft goals in the ACL this year, especially straight after taking the lead.  In Melbourne, they took the lead three times in a 3-3 draw. And the same in Shanghai where it ended 2-2.  I have a niggling feeling it'll happen again.

Dan's Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-2 Suwon Samsung Bluewings  

Dan Croydon Asks, Scott Whitelock Answers 

Dan Croydon: Suwon have had some mixed results of late. What is the mood like in and around the club coming into this game?

Scott Whitelock: Suwon are still sitting 3rd in the table and are still contending on the continental stage, so the mood isn’t quite as low as it could be. But, as a result of Seo Jung-won’s poor squad management, Suwon do sit in a pretty precarious position. When they traveled to Jeonbuk a few weeks ago, Suwon were in a very healthy position and looked set for a strong title challenge. However, Seo’s gamble to sacrifice that Jeonbuk game and target the upcoming games against Ulsan and Seoul has now transpired to be a huge mistake. In those games, Suwon could only manage a draw against Ulsan and then were beaten by Seoul at the weekend.  If Suwon can win in this game then those mistakes will probably be forgiven quickly. But having been one of the form teams in the league, Suwon now find themselves completely out of form and struggling to score goals.

DC: Suwon won all three away games in the group stage. Can you put your finger on why they are traveling so well this season?

SW: That is a difficult one to answer. But with three wins away from home and one draw, and two defeats at home in the ACL, it is clear that this team is built for traveling.
One of the reasons may be that Seo’s favoured 3-4-3 formation is more effective when other team’s attack Suwon.  Suwon’s three away victories haven’t exactly been hit-and-run exercises. They have controlled possession and had the best goalscoring opportunities in all of their away wins in the competition. However, when teams sit in and protect their area, as they do when they visit Suwon World Cup Stadium, Suwon find it very difficult to break them down.  When they play away from home there is an onus on the home team to probe and attack Suwon. And that is where the quality of the likes of Yeom Ki-hun, Dejan, Lee Ki-je and Kim Jong-woo has been able to shine through.

DC: It's been a hectic few weeks in the K League. What kind of shape is your squad in?

SW: It’s been a hectic three months for Suwon, and the insane schedule has led to them playing ten games over the last month. In fact, the last time Suwon did not play more than one game in a week was back in March. And much like the rest of the teams representing Korea in the Champions League, their squad has been pushed to breaking point. Almost entirely rotated starting elevens have been used over the past few weeks and I am sure that Seo Jung-won will rotate again for this game. Centrebacks Matthew Jurman and Koo Ja-ryoung are likely to come back into the team. So too will midfield general Choi Seung-geun. The likes of Jang Ho-ik (right wing-back) and Waguininho (forward), who have been serving domestic suspensions, will also surely be utilised in this game.  With a game against bottom club, Daegu, to come at the weekend, Seo Jung-won may well see this game as the priority. Therefore, I would also expect at least one of the likes of Dejan, Yeom Ki-hun or Jeon Se-jin to start this game also.

DC: Will Suwon being hoping to keep it tight in this first leg? Or do you expect they will come to Munsu aiming to win?

SWGiven the huge difference between Suwon’s home form and their away form, it is vitally important that Suwon give themselves a lead going into the second leg of this tie. Their recent record in Ulsan does not make for good reading though (they have only one once in Ulsan since 2015), and I am sure that will enter the manager’s thinking.  Suwon will stick to their typical gameplan. They will look to control the midfield, dominate possession and patiently search for openings. If Dejan is on the pitch, I expect Suwon to be able to convert the openings that do come their way and to take home a valuable lead.

Scott's Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 1-2 Suwon Bluewings

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