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ACL Preview: Kawasaki Frontale vs Ulsan Hyundai

Match Day 4 sees Ulsan Hyundai travel to Kawasaki Frontale just two weeks after their dramatic late win over the Japanese Champions put them three points clear at the top of Group H.  Since then though Ulsan have suffered a dip in their domestic form, crashing out of the Korean FA Cup in shock fashion, while Frontale have picked up two wins from two. Will Kawasaki close the gap on the Horangi, or will Ulsan take a step closer to qualification for the knockout stages? Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon spoke to Frontale blogger Neil Debham about this vital Champions League encounter. 

Dan Croydon Asks, Neil Debham Answers

Dan: What was your assessment of Frontale's loss at Ulsan? Were the team just unlucky or do you put some blame on the lineup or tactics? 

Neil: Well, it was a pretty awful game to watch, wasn’t it? I think we would have both been satisfied with a point and that probably would have been a fair result. But we have a habit this year of conceding late goals, so it felt pretty typical when we did it again. The slightly worrying thing is how hopeless we were up front. Our captain Kobayashi Yu said something along the lines of the fact that he’d never played a game where things worked so badly up front. I think that has to be pinned on the manager Oniki who isn’t exactly my favourite person at the moment. Our team selections seem pretty random at times and to go into an important ACL away game with a defensive midfield pairing who’d never played together, one of whom had only spent 3 minutes on the pitch in his Frontale career, seemed a bit weird too.

DC: What has been the fans' response to the ACL campaign so far? Is there pressure on them to succeed, or do fans want the manager to focus on improving the league form?

ND: Frontale fans are notoriously nice and uncomplaining folk. But there were murmurs of discontent on the message boards after the last ACL game. I don’t think our fans particularly favour the ACL over the league or vice versa. Perhaps the attendances would suggest so, but it’s more the inconvenient kick-off times that lower the crowds at ACL matches, although we still get a decent amount of fans in. So I don’t think the loss to Ulsan upset people more or less than any other awful performance we’ve put in this season. In a way, and I realise this sound ridiculous, the problem is that we have won the league for the last two seasons, which were coincidentally the first two seasons our manager was in charge. That means Oniki has already banked some good feeling from the fans and however badly he does this year he’s unlikely to get the flick. I don’t particularly want him to be fired, but I think he’s got to sort things out pretty quickly or we can forget about this season on all fronts. Whether he can do this is another matter.

DC: Frontale are still very much in this competition, but this game would appear to be a must-win, right?

ND: I think so. Although I guess we could still get through with a couple of wins in the last two games. We’ve got a few injuries at the moment, but as I said above, the team selection seems to be somewhat random recently anyway, so maybe that won’t actually be much of an issue. The Sydney/Shanghai result was quite a nice one for us. But we should probably be wary that Sydney have two draws at home so far and we’ll almost certainly need a win there. Sydney looked terrible in the game at our place, but we still only just scraped a win, so getting three points after a long flight might be a big ask. So yes, probably a must win, but definitely a must not lose.

DC: What are your predictions for Tuesday night? Who are the players to watch out for?

ND: For once I’ll try to be optimistic. Given the need for a good result and the fact that we probably should have got more from the last game, I’ll optimistically plump for a scrappy goal 1-0 win to Frontale to postpone the misery for a little while. As for players to watch, I’ve said numerous times that the line up will be pretty random, so it’s difficult to say who’ll play. Our young striker Chinen has scored goals in four consecutive league matches so maybe he’s one to watch, but he didn’t play the last ACL game. As he’s the player least likely to be dropped, I’ll say Ienaga, who was the J League MVP last year, but has varied from alright to pretty bad this season so far. I guess that means he’s due a good performance sooner or later!

Neil Asks, Dan Answers

ND: Ulsan are in a strong position in the group. Do you think that will change the way they’ll approach this game?

DC: No I don't expect any big changes in tactics. I'm sure it will be the same compact 4-5-1 we've played throughout the tournament so far. It's worked well thus far, as we are yet to concede a goal, which is pretty remarkable considering this was labeled the Group of Death. We appear to be taking the tournament very seriously this year, which is good to see, so I expect the manager will pick a team he thinks can win the game. That being said though, we wouldn't be too upset with a point.

Dutch defender Dave Bulthuis has been instrumental in Ulsan's three clean sheets in the ACL

ND: The previous game was pretty dull! But Ulsan won. Is this a characteristic of Ulsan this year, or were they keeping things extra tight to avoid a loss?

DC: I would say it is pretty characteristic of how our manager Kim Do-hoon has set us up this season, especially against good opposition - his mindset has been "do not concede". It is understandable in a way, in that too often last year we threw away points against our rivals by giving away two and sometimes even three-goal leads. So Plan A so far this campaign has been to stay very conservative, play with two holding midfielders, and hope we can nick a goal at some point. And it worked very well until last week when we finally let an opponent break the deadlock - at which point we found it very hard to switch to a more high-tempo, attacking Plan B. We've lost two in a row now after conceding the opening goal, first against a semi-pro side in the Korean FA Cup, then a rare home loss to Seongnam FC in the league. Kim Do-hoon did bring on a second striker in both those losses, but to no avail. Ulsan are just too predictable at the moment and seem to lack the spark of creativity to get themselves back in the game. Neutrals watching on Tuesday night will have to hope both team's get their attacks sorted out, otherwise they are in for another lacklustre ninety minutes. 

ND: Do you imagine any changes in personnel from the last ACL game? And do you think this one will turn out the same way?

DC: So, having said all that about our manager's tactical problems, I don't expect he will change anything significant for this game. In fact, I think he will double down on his defensive approach, as looking at the table a point would be a pretty good result for us. So that means we'll probably have two holding midfielders - Shin Jin-ho and Park Yong-woo - behind attacking midfielder Mix Diskerud and two wingers, with our target man Junior as the lone striker. If we take the lead, preferably in the second half, our defensive strength could carry us to a win. But if Frontale get a goal first then I think you'll run out comfortable 2-0 winners.

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