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ACL Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs Kawasaki Frontale

Ulsan Hyundai welcome Japan's J1 Champions Kawasaki Frontale to Munsu Stadium this Wednesday night for the third match in Group H. The two teams have made polar opposite starts to their domestic campaigns, but are separated by just a point in the ACL "Group of Death."  Will Ulsan maintain their unbeaten run, or can Frontale get their season back on track with a morale-boosting away win? Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon spoke to a rather gloomy-sounding Neil Debham of frontalerabbit.blogspot.com ahead of this intriguing encounter.

Daniel Asks, Neil Answers

Daniel: Frontale have made a "mixed" start to the season shall we say? What are your thoughts on their recent form?

Neil: Very generous of you to say “mixed”! So far, this year has been a disaster. One win in the league in six games, a complete lack of confidence, even basic passing skills deserting us, it hasn’t been much fun to watch. It’s pretty inexplicable, to be honest. Admittedly we’ve only lost one league game, but the performances have been dire and really disheartening. Perhaps our ACL form has been a touch better. We were unlucky to concede a late penalty and lose against Shanghai after more than matching them for the majority of an admittedly pretty dull game. We beat Sydney, but that was probably our worst performance of the season. There’s not much to be positive about for me at the moment and writing this the day after another rotten league draw isn’t helping my optimism!

DC: How have the new signings been doing? I know you had particularly high hopes for Leandro Damiao.

ND: Good question! Bizarrely our manager Oniki seems to have decided that Leandro Damiao isn’t up to the job and has hardly played him. In spite of this, he’s still our joint top scorer. The other signings have suffered similarly, getting a few minutes here and there or the odd start and then vanishing completely out of the matchday squad. I guess Oniki is still trying to find his preferred starting line up but there’s a very real feeling for me that he was a lucky but ultimately poor manager whose luck has now run out.

DC: Who are the players Ulsan fans should be watching out for on Wednesday night?

ND: Your guess is as good as mine! Players who pre-season would fall into this category have either miserably under performed (Morita, Nakamura, Ienaga, Kobayashi) or not had any real chances (Leandro Damiao, Maguinho). As team selections recently seem to have been pretty random, I can’t even guess who’ll play. Our young striker Chinen has two goals in two games, but I wouldn’t exactly say he’s in blistering form. Maybe let’s say Jung Sung-ryong in goal as I’m sure he’ll be busy. That’s how exciting we are this season. The player to watch is our keeper.

One to watch - Frontale's Korean 'keeper Jung Sung-ryong in action against Ulsan last season

DC: Frontale failed to win either game against Ulsan last season. Can they do it this time?

ND: Perhaps the ACL will prove to be a welcome break from our dire league form but I can’t imagine we’re going into this game with much confidence. If we play as we can, or could last year, we probably could beat any team in the competition. Sadly, such performances are a distant memory at the moment and in recent years we have a tendency to stink it up in this competition for no apparent reason. This looks like it’s going to be a tough group so this is a game we have to be looking to get something from but I can’t see where that kind of performance might come from as things stand.

Neil Asks, Daniel Answers

ND: Ulsan have made a flying start to the new season in the league. Do you think they will prioritise the league over the ACL, or are both equally important?

DC:  You're right, Ulsan have been excellent so far this year, especially at home. Two victories in a week against Jeju and FC Seoul made it five wins from five at Munsu now. And the early signs are that our manager Kim Do-hoon has the squad he believes can compete for both the K League title and an ACL run. He made six changes for our win at Sangju last weekend with one eye on this game, of course. But we were still savvy and solid enough to come away with the three points to stay top of the league. Our back-up striker Joo Min-kyu got the only goal on his delayed debut after returning from injury, which is excellent because we looked short of cover in that position a few weeks ago.  Junior should return upfront on Wednesday night and will be raring to go. So all in all, Ulsan do look like they can handle being in both competitions at the moment without either one of them suffering.

ND: How are your new signings settling in? Guessing given your results, that the new centre-backs are working well together.

DC: I couldn't be happier with the start made by our new signings. Midfielders Kim Bo-kyung and Shin Jin-ho, and centre-back Yoon Young-sun have all slotted straight into the team and have made us a better-orgainsed, more solid group than we were last year. This is perhaps not that surprising considering they have already proven themselves in the K League and know exactly what is required to succeed here.

I am pleasantly surprised though that our foreign signing, Dave Bulthuis, has settled in equally quickly and has already put in some outstanding performances in central defence. He's played every minute of every game so far, and has shown remarkable effort and no small amount of skill every time he's taken the field. I was worried we may struggle to find a replacement for Richard Windbichler in the off-season, but Bulthuis has put those fears to bed in a matter of a few short months.

ND: You drew away at Sydney and won at home against Shanghai. Were these results a surprise, as I’d have expected them to be the other way round? Were Sydney better and Shanghai worse than you thought they’d be?

DC: The Sydney match was a strange one, firstly because it was the opening game, so you never know what kind of performance you are going to get; and secondly because of the gale force winds.  Neither side really got to grips with the farcical conditions and I think both teams were just happy to settle for the point after a while. The win over Shanghai SIPG was the point at which I became convinced this Ulsan team has a chance of winning something this year. We kept the Brazilian megastars quiet almost the entire ninety minutes and took our opportunity to score when it came.We really looked to have gelled as a team, unlike Shanghai, where the quality of Oscar stuck out like an immensely sore thumb. 

ND: What’s your prediction for this game, and even though it’s still early stages, how do you think the group will finish?

DC:  I think Ulsan will be trying to win the game, of course, but they will be a little wary early on.  We are yet to concede first in any of our nine matches so far this season, which is down to our compact and fairly conservative approach, especially in the first half. So I'm expecting a slow, cautious encounter with few chances in the first half. Perhaps things will start to open up in the second 45 and we'll get a few goals. I'll plump for a 2-1 home win, just like last year.  As for the group, if we win on Wednesday I think we stand a pretty good chance of going through in top spot, with either your team, or Shanghai SIPG in second. 

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