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Preview: Sydney FC vs. Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai begin their Asian Champions League campaign proper this Wednesday with a trip to Sydney FC. The Horangi are unbeaten in their last four ACL matches Down Under, but victory won't come easy as their hosts have a point to prove after bowing out at the group stage last year. Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon spoke to Jamie Dunkin of the Sydney FC blog All Sides of the Harbour about this intriguing encounter.

Dan Croydon Asks, Jamie Dunkin Answers

Dan: Sydney won the A-League regular season at a canter last year, but find themselves a bit off the pace this time around. How have things changed since last year? Is this a weaker Sydney FC team?

Jamie: It's been an odd season for Sydney. Former assistant coach Steve Corica is currently manager, replacing Graham Arnold who left for the Australia job. In our last off-season we lost several very important players - our Dutch centre back Jordy Buijs, Polish playmaker Adrian Mierzejewski, and A-League Golden Boot winner Bobo, who scored 27 goals in as many games. Their replacements have been of varying quality (with Buijs' direct replacement dropped after bad performances), but the side has been impacted most by injury and international selection.

A majority of the players however are the same, but with performances inconsistent from many starting players. Manager Steve Corica plays a strict 4-4-2 formation with his team, and has yet to truly experiment with anything else. It's a weaker squad without a doubt, but we still sit second (at the time of writing) on the A-League table despite a lot of issues.

The big difference between this year and last ultimately is the loss of Adrian Mierzejewski. The Pole won 3 individual honours last season, and is generally considered one of the greatest players to have been in the A-League. He was very direct and skilled on the ball, and his combination with Bobo was the most potent partnership in Australian history. Without him Sydney haven't quite got that X-Factor of previous seasons.

DC: Sydney had a decent showing in the ACL last year too, with a notable win away at Suwon Bluewings, although they ultimately left the competition at the group stage. Can they make it to the knockout stages this time?

JD: That's the big question here in Sydney. There's a lot of quality in this side, but thus far in the A-League season they haven't unlocked their full potential. This time however, there is arguably more depth than what we had this time last year, and much stronger local players to use. The major failure from last year was the inability to create chances at home, and by the same token, failure to win at home in Asia. This year our big aim will be to right those wrongs. I do think however that in such a strong group, it'd be viewed as a major success in Australia should they break into the knockouts - many here predict the Sky Blues to drop out in the group stage again.

DC: Who are the danger men Ulsan should be keeping an eye on?

JD: Sydney have some great talent by A-League standards in their squad, but the biggest danger man among them will be Adam le Fondre. The Englishman has scored 14 goals in 20 appearances (as of time of writing) and is just a great #9. He works hard all around the pitch, has a lot of pace, and has a great mental drive which shows in how he plays - if you remember him from his days at Reading you might remember how lethal he is. His partnership with recent signing Iranian forward Reza Ghoochannejhad (known mostly at Reza) hasn't had very long to develop, but the two are both class players with lots of experience. Ghoochannejhad scored 16 goals for his nation in 44 appearances and 27 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie.

Captain Alex Brosque (a forward) will likely be the major game changer off the bench, who is having one of his best seasons at the age of 35. His leadership has been vital to Sydney in the last four years, and this season he's been both a starting player and come on off the bench. The skipper has a decent record in the Champions League with 5 goals, and in the current season has scored 9 in all competitions.

DC: What are your predictions for this match?

JD: Sydney have a solid defensive line, a goalkeeper capable of making the big saves when needed, and enough players in forward areas to cause problems. I think with Ulsan's strong attacking power it'll be very tight between the two sides, and this match will be won and lost in which side's defence can hold out. Sydney's record against Korean opposition is fairly decent, with 3 wins from 6, but only 1 of those at home. With home ground advantage and playing on Friday night prior to the match, I think Sydney should have no excuses fitness wise against Ulsan. I'm tipping a 1-1 draw between the two sides at Jubilee.


Jamie Asks, Dan Answers

JD: Ulsan have been very active in the transfer window, but which signing has been the most exciting or interesting?

DC: You're right, it's been a busy transfer window for Ulsan with several big signings to get the fans excited. Firstly, we lost one of our most important defenders at the end of last season, Richard Windbichler. So finding a fitting replacement for him was high on Kim Do-hoon's to-do list. He chose Dave Bulthuis, a Dutch defender who cut his teeth in Germany and Holland before coming over to Asia. Physically he looks very similar to Windbichler; he's well over 6ft with a frame like an antique wardrobe. Early performances are promising as Bulthuis looks aggressive and very capable in the air - a prerequisite for foreign defenders in the K League. Hopefully he's the man to help us tighten up at the back.

Other than that, we've signed former Premier League star and ACL winner Kim Bo-kyung from Kashiwa Reysol. Again, it's early days as Ulsan have only played twice so far this season , but you can tell this bloke is quality. His technique looks to be a cut above what we had last season, and his ability to think a couple of steps ahead of his opponents makes him a real handful in the final third.  He already seems to have formed an understanding with our main striker Junior, so fans have no concerns about our ability to score goals. Overall then, we look to have kept a lot of what carried us to a third place finish last season, while improving on several of our shortcomings.

JD: Ulsan have a very good track record in the Asian Champions League. When it comes down to it, would it be more important to them than the K League - and what are their expectations in the upcoming K League season?

DC: Our manager Kim Do-hoon has made it clear this season that he wants to fight on all fronts - domestic and continental. This was not the case in the past, when the gulf between Ulsan and Korea's top team Jeonbuk looked so insurmountable that Kim more or less conceded from the opening weekend. Last year's ACL for example, clearly took precedence over the league campaign as Kim put out a second string in the K League and saved his best lineup for the ACL group stage games.

The feeling over here now though is that Ulsan are finally in a position to challenge Jeonbuk for the league title, so it will be very interesting to see what team Kim picks for this match in Sydney. My feeling is Kim is still under pressure from his bosses to succeed in Asia. He may rotate a few players, but the eleven players that take the pitch should be capable of getting a positive result.

JD: With the team nearing the end of pre-season preparations, how match fit will the side be? Are there any injury issues in the squad?

DC: Ulsan had a decent preseason and looked very good in their opening match against Suwon Bluewings last Friday. They won the game 2-1, but it was a pretty rough and tumble affair with a couple of players looking worse for wear by the final whistle. Overall though, there's just one notable injury I know of - Hwang Il-soo, a winger who scored our goal in the FA Cup Final last year, has a hamstring problem he picked up in the ACL Playoff with Perak a few weeks ago. But the manager has plenty of options in that position so it shouldn't be too much of a worry.

JDAustralia has a pretty poor track record in the Champions League, and Ulsan managed a 6-2 win over Melbourne Victory last year - does Korea view Sydney (and other Aussie sides) as easy beats?

DC: Don't forget the 6-0 against Brisbane the year before! But no, I don't think Ulsan see A-League teams as gimmes, especially away from home. It's always difficult to travel so far for a midweek game when you have to play on the weekends either side. That's why I struggle to predict what kind of team our manager will put out; I certainly expect him to rotate the attacking players.

The other thing, of course, is that the K League season has only just started, whereas you guys are twenty games into yours. Fitness-wise we should be okay, but I think there is a higher likelihood that an Ulsan player will make a mistake due to miscommunication or just being a bit rusty. We saw that last year in Melbourne when we took the lead three times before letting Victory equalise each time within a few minutes. This match is too close to call for me too, so I'm going for a 2-2 draw.


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