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Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Shanghai SIPG

Ulsan Hyundai will be out for revenge this Wednesday evening, as they take on Shanghai SIPG in a repeat of one of last year's group stage fixtures. The Horangi narrowly lost to their Chinese visitors 0-1 a year ago, but after reinforcing the squad, manager Kim Do-hoon will believe his side can take all three points this time around. Meanwhile, SIPG are seemingly stronger than ever, so this tie remains a difficult one to call. Nevertheless, Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon spoke to Chris Lau, writer and editor at wildeastfootball.net to do precisely that.

Daniel Croydon Asks, Chris Lau Answers

Dan: Shanghai have started the season with some excellent results - sitting atop the Chinese Super League, and an ACL win over a strong Kawasaki Frontale side. For those of us who haven't seen them play yet this year, how have the performances been? 

Chris: Shanghai SIPG have had a near perfect start to the season and a morale-boosting 2-0 win over arch-rivals Beijing Guoan in the Chinese Super Cup was a strong warning for the rest of the Chinese Super league that they mean business. In the league opener, SIPG crushed bitter rivals Shanghai Shenua 4-0  which reinforced the gulf between them and their mismanaged rivals.

The biggest news is, of course, the loss of Wu Lei, SIPG’s golden boy, who moved over to play for RCD Espanyol in La Liga and who has scored once in six appearances so far in Spain. The loss to SIPG is immeasurable as he scored 151 goals in his time at SIPG. Shanghai SIPG have not reinforced themselves in terms of signings and many of their reserve and youth team players have been promoted to the first team, whilst players such as Zhijie Gao and Jianghang Hu have returned from loan periods in China's League One.

DC: SIPG left it late to get the winner against Kawasaki Frontale. Did they deserve the three points?  Any concerns about what you saw?. 

CL: Despite their strong start this season, Shanghai SIPG were very fortunate against the J-league’s Kawasaki Frontale and it was only a penalty by Hulk, after a very controversial decision, that won the game. Morita was deemed to have handled the ball after he slid in for a tackle and it was his trailing arm which touched the ball as his body’s momentum pulled him forward.

Despite Shanghai SIPG’s win, the visitors did have several chances to score and potentially snatch all three away points. Shanghai SIPG also had several chances to convert but a combination of lacklustre finishing and bad luck meant that they could not score from open play. SIPG will have to be clinical in front of goal against Ulsan especially if they want to gain a vital away win against a solid Ulsan side.

DC: Most of us are familiar with individual players, particularly the Brazilian trio of Hulk, Oscar, and Elkeson. But what are the strengths of SIPG as a team?

CL: One of the core strengths of SIPG is the overall stability of the team and the number of long term players who have been with the team through the seasons, even in the days when the team was in China League Two. Until his departure, Wu Lei had been with SIPG for over a decade and first turned out for them in 2006. The longevity of those players means that everyone is familiar with each others style of play; long term players such as Cai Huikang, Wang Shenchao and Lu Wenjun have all made over 200 appearances for SIPG.

Aside from the experienced players, SIPG have been slowly promoting up youth and reserve players to the first team and have not splashed out the cash since acquiring both Oscar and Hulk. This greater reliance on youth has seen youngsters like defender, Wei Zhen, have the chance to break into the first team. This unique blend of stability and the careful selection of both senior and emerging players has given SIPG a sense of unity which flourished last season and has continued into this season .

DC: How much pressure is on manager Vitor Pereira to finally deliver ACL success?

CL: With the Chinese Super league finally under their belt, SIPG can focus on the next ‘mental’ obstacle which has proven to be difficult to overcome; winning the Asian Champions League. The closest they have come was in 2017 when they lost over two legs to eventual champions, Urawa Red Diamonds; this was after their epic 5-5 aggregate draw and subsequent penalty shoot out win over arch-rivals Guangzhou Evergrande in the quarter-finals stage.

The fact that Evergrande have triumphed twice in Asia in both 2013 and 2015 must rankle SIPG and this should act as a motivating factor. Given the calibre of the squad with household names such as Oscar and Hulk, much is expected from both the team and the manager, and Pereira will be aware that memories are indeed short and nothing but the Champions League title will be enough during his tenure.

Chris' Score Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 1-2 Shanghai SIPG

Chris Asks, Dan Answers

CL: Ulsan made the Champions League group stages after defeating Perak of Malaysia emphatically and drew with Sydney on Match Day 1; do you think Ulsan now have the momentum to gain a positive result against Shanghai SIPG and will home advantage make any difference?

DC: Ulsan come into this game on the back of two frustrating nil-nil draws, away to Sydney and then against Gangwon FC at the weekend, so I wouldn't say they carry much momentum at the moment.  The long trip to Sydney last week clearly took its toll on the players and, although a point away in the group stages is nothing to be sniffed at, the trudging performance and blustery conditions ironically seems to have taken the wind out of Ulsan's sails.

However, Ulsan are a different proposition at home these days. Their place in this tournament is largely down to an extraordinary winning streak at Munsu last season. They also have a decent home record in continental competition, and although they lost to Shanghai in this fixture last season, it was more down to some wasteful finishing rather than any gulf in class. I'm sure they will be out to right that wrong on Wednesday night.

CL Mix Diskerud scored a crucial brace in the playoff game against Perak; how important is he for the team and who else should SIPG look out for? 

DC: Mix is an increasingly important player for the Horangi as manager Kim Do-hoon has expanded his role in the team. For much of his first six months at the club, the US international would drop deep into the old Didier Deschamps "water-carrier"  role - something he did very well, but it did limit his impact on matters higher up the pitch. This season though, Mix has been let off the chain a little more, and is playing as more of a box-to-box midfielder, which means we get to see his quality in the final third. And, as he showed against Perak, he knows how to put the ball in the net. Fans are excited now to see more of the new, unleashed Mix Diskerud.

Another player SIPG should be aware of is winter signing Kim Bo-kyung. He's an attacking midfielder many will know from his time in the Premier League with Cardiff. Ulsan fans haven't seen much of him yet in terms of end product, but Kim has always been a player for the big occasions. A lot of Ulsan's attack go though him as he flits from wing to wing, so I expect him to have a big say in the outcome of this game.

CL Manager, Kim Do-Hoon, arrived at Ulsan in 2017. Is more expected from him in terms of delivering success to Ulsan?

DC: After two seasons of steady investment in the squad, pressure to challenge for the K League title is starting to build on Kim Do-hoon. Many of his peers believe he now has the squad to challenge Jeonbuk, as K League managers overwhelmingly picked Ulsan as the team most likely to challenge Korea's dominant club for top-spot this year. So yes, expectations are on the up domestically, and after listening to what the manager has had to say about his side's goals for 2019, he has fully embraced this new label of "K League Challengers".

As for the ACL, the manager has also spoken positively about his team's chances of going further than last year.  It is understandable as, on paper, the squad looks strong enough to challenge on both fronts. However, with arguably the toughest group, it will be interesting to see what happens if the result doesn't go Ulsan's way on Wednesday night. A loss could mean Kim turns his attention fully to domestic matters and lets the ACL take a back seat for another year. As a fan of Ulsan and the Asian Champions League, I sincerely hope that's not the case.

Dan's Score Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 Shanghai SIPG

2019 AFC Champions League Guide: here

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