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ACL Writers' Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Perak FA

First-time entrants Perak FA, of Malaysia, travel to 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai for the final playoff round of this year's Asian Champions League. The winner of the tie will go into Group H with some of Asia's biggest clubs - Shanghai SIPG, Kawasaki Frontale, and Sydney FC. Ulsan are sure to field a strong team, but with the K League still in preseason mode, the Malaysian underdogs will be hoping to catch the Horangi cold. Ulsan columnist, Daniel Croydon, chatted with Malaysian journalist, Ooi Kin Fai, to preview this vital game.   

Daniel Asks, Ooi Kin Fai Answers

Daniel: This is Perak's first venture into the Asian Champions League. Tell us a bit about the club, and what this competition means to the fans.

Ooi Kin Fai: Perak are one of the state teams in Malaysia. In the past few years, all the states teams in the country were encouraged to make the transition to a full club side. Some have done it but Perak are still in the transition of doing so. They are the only team in the country who have never been relegated from the top flight in the history of the domestic league.

The spot for the ACL qualifier was initially reserved for the FA Cup winners but Pahang, who won the cup, are serving the final year of their ban from Football Association of Malaysia, for pulling out of last season's AFC Cup competition, so the spot went to the Super League runners-up which is Perak.

Ironically, the Asian competition only really started to pique the interest of fans due to Johor Darul Ta'zim FC's recent success in making it to the group stage. So in the current circumstances, it means a great deal to the fans to be right up following the path set by JDT.

DC: Perak needed penalties to get past ten-man Kitchee in the last round. How did the team play on the night and did they deserve to go through?

OKF: Perak created a lot of chances against Kitchee and were always going to be slight favourites given that the match was played at home, at Perak Stadium. Controlling the game, Perak created lots of chances to score but could only really convert the one. Kitchee may have had a player sent off in the second half but that actually did Perak more harm than good as they eased off and allowed the away side to get on the ball more. That ultimately led to concession of the late equaliser and subsequent penalty shoot-out. Overall though, it would be fair to say that qualification to the next stage was just what Perak's performance on the night deserved.

Ex-Ulsan player Wander Luiz (centre) got Perak's goal against Kitchee
(Image via Yahoo Sports)

What are the team's main strengths and are there any standout players?

OKF: Familiarity is the main strength of Perak. Head coach Mehmed Durakovic is a rather pragmatic coach and tends to rely on keeping the same side together, unless forced to do otherwise. So, it's fair to say there's a fixed main XI with everyone else only getting their chances either as substitutes or when injury strikes. The spine of the team is good with Shahrul Saad at the base of the defence, one who had an outstanding recent AFF Suzuki Cup campaign for Malaysia. Further up field the strike partnership of two Brazilians, in Gilmar Filho and Wander Luiz, combines brute strength and cleverness on the ball respectively. Durakovic will be looking for long balls for Gilmar to hold up and bring others into play, or having the big centre forward laying on the pass to speedy wingers on the flanks.

DC: Care to make any predictions?

OKF: Being at this stage of the competition for the first time in their history, it has already been a major achievement for Perak. No one is expecting them to get a result against Ulsan Hyundai, come Tuesday's match, as the gulf between the two sides is still seen to be very big. Anything other than a major hammering will be considered a success and Durakovic would look to set his team up to be ultra defensive and see if they can deny the Korean side.

I can only see Ulsan achieving victory here.

Kin Fai's Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 3-0 Perak FA

Ooi Kin Fai Asks, Daniel Answers

OKF:  Finishing third in the K-League last season, what has the club done in terms of  their squad heading into the 2019 season. Has there been a big turnover of players?

DC: Ulsan have been one of the more active K League teams in this year's winter transfer window. They have made some exciting signings, whilst keeping hold of most of their existing talent.  Manager Kim Do-hoon has moved to sure up the defence by signing Korean international Yun Young-sun from Seongnam, along with the giant Dutchman Dave Bulthuis from SC Heerenveen.

The standout signing though has to be ex-Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-young, who has come in on loan and will hopefully be able to unlock even the strongest back line. So, the overall feeling around the club is very optimistic - if still a little cautious at this point.

OKF: Given the relative strength of the two teams, will the manager be selecting his strongest XI or will it be a mixed bag? Will the fact that Ulsan haven't played a competitive match yet this season have much of an impact?

DC: Traditionally the club have taken this competition pretty seriously, so I certainly expect Kim Do-hoon to select a strong team. Whether it proves to be his best XI remains to be seen, but I think he will pick the players who have proven themselves match ready during the various friendlies and training camps.  Kim is not the most tactically diverse manager so I can say with some certainty Ulsan will start with one up front, three in attacking midfield, two holding midfielders and a flat back four.

The fact that such an important game is the first match of the season will definitely be a concern. Experience has shown us as much. The last time Ulsan were in the playoffs, two years ago, they only just scraped by Kitchee on penalties. So the manager is bound to be drilling into his players not to take anything for granted.

OKF: It's only been six years since Ulsan last lifted the ACL. Realistically what will be their target for the competition this season?

DC: It feels like much longer than that! It seems the competition has grown in stature since Ulsan won it, and the competition, especially from the Chinese clubs, has certainly got a lot tougher.

Having said that, Ulsan qualified from their group last season - a group that featured both Shanghai SIPG and Kawasaki Frontale. So, realistically they should be aiming to do the same again, before hopefully winning a knockout tie this time.

OKF: How are the fans viewing this match against Perak? Do they even see it as much of a challenge or does it feel like only a matter of turning up for the mighty Koreans?

DC: As you will no doubt see on Tuesday night, only the hardcore fans will show up to watch the early rounds of the ACL. It's not so much to do with the caliber of the opposition, rather the fact that midweek winter/spring games just aren't that popular. But the fans that are there will certainly expect a win. Most won't care how it comes about either, just so long as Ulsan get through.

Dan's prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 1-0 Perak FA

K League United would like to extend their thanks to Ooi Kin Fai for his contribution. Ooi Kin Fai is an editor for Goal Malaysia, providing insight on the Malaysian Premier League. 

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