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ACL Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Urawa Red Diamonds

ACL Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs.  Urawa Red Diamonds
It's Korea versus Japan again this Wednesday night as Ulsan Hyundai host Urawa Red Diamonds in the second leg of this last 16 AFC Champions League match-up.  Ulsan are firmly in the driving seat after they came back from a goal down to win 2-1 in Saitama last week, but, as the Reds showed in their run to the 2017 ACL title, nothing is decided after the first ninety.  K League United's Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon spoke to football coach and Urawa fan Ryan Steele ahead of this crucial game.

Dan Croydon Asks, Ryan Steele Answers

Dan: Urawa started the first leg well and took a deserved lead, but things started to go downhill soon after. What is your assessment of what went wrong for the Reds?

Ryan: I think that performance was in part due to a slower start from Ulsan.  But the Korean team picked up after conceding and simply outperformed Urawa in the second half. Like you, I was impressed with Urawa's start to the match, but once Ulsan found their footing, the balance shifted and it looked a much more even encounter throughout the first half.  Joo Min-kyu soon took advantage of the space given to him in transition to head home an equaliser — I guess Urawa's opener must have woken the visitors up from whatever jetlag they'd suffered from at kickoff.

Urawa were yet again caught off guard by counter-attacks, with both goals coming from fast transitions that left defenders ball watching, gifting opportunities to score. Also, the lack of productivity from set pieces—specifically corners—was a concern.  Urawa had almost double the number of corners Ulsan had, but, despite the good positioning of players around the box to pick up loose balls, little more than thumping a shot into a pile of bodies was considered by those players in the second phase of play.

DC: Despite the loss, were there any positives to be taken from the performance? 

RS: The performances of certain players were at a much higher standard than we've seen from them of late. Kenyu Sugimoto scored his second goal of the season and first in the ACL after finding space between the Ulsan defenders to head home a pinpoint pass-cum-cross from Takuya Aoki, while winger Ryosuke Yamanaka had one of his best performances since joining the club in the off-season.

The number of attempts on goal and seeing more decisiveness in their approach to attack was also a pleasing sight, showing the influence that interim head coach Tsuyoshi Otsuki has already had on the players and playing style since returning to the position just weeks ago. A lot of the passing combinations looked faster, sharper, and more confident, often involving more players than we've seen in earlier matches this season, and they were much more competent in bringing the ball into the attacking half of the pitch on a regular basis.

DC: Urawa have to score at least a couple of goals if they are to go through on Wednesday night. Do they have that kind of performance in them do you think?

RS: If they can replicate the start to the first leg, there are definitely goals to be had for them. Overall, the team has looked better prepared under Otsuki and more of a threat in their attacking presence, both in open play and from set pieces.

With Otsuki substituting the goalscorer before anybody else in the first legwhether that was because of Sugimoto's lack of match fitness or a tactical decisionsuggests we might not see the same starting lineup for this match, as Urawa are chasing a lead, so there's still the question of who will start as the Reds look to take control and find both the suppliers and the players who can finish the chances.

DC:  So how do you see the match going? Can Urawa defy the odds?

RS: I can't shake Urawa's form in Korea over the years - including the recent 2-1 loss to Jeonbuk on Matchday 4 - so I still can't help but feel like going into this match needing a win is an impossible mountain to climb, despite the improved performance we saw in the first leg.

Though it's not ideal, I would be able to swallow a hard-fought draw with goals — something like a 2-2 draw if the intensity and positivity can meet expectations.

Clash of the Titans — Lee Keun-ho battles with Tomoaki Makino last Wednesday (via www.football-zone.net)

Ryan Steele Asks, Dan Croydon Answers

RS: On the podcast before the first leg, we talked about the return of Dave Bulthuis to defence from injury. Were you happy with his performance in his first start back and do you expect that to be important for the defence this week?

DC: Of course I was very happy to see him back.  Bulthuis has exactly the level of experience and concentration required to get results away from home.  You could see him constantly communicating with his fellow centre back Kang Min-soo and 'encouraging' his midfielders to close the opposition down.  The one time Bulthuis and Kang did switch off was when Sugimoto got in between them to score, which just goes to show the level of performance required at this stage of the ACL — any mistake can and will be punished.

I fully expect Dave Bulthuis to start again on Wednesday, and I think he is going to have to step up again if Ulsan are to keep Urawa at bay early on.  The Reds have to attack from kickoff, so the first forty-five minutes will be crucial for Ulsan.

RS: Junior Negrão didn't start the match despite being a leading figure up front. Upon reflection what do you think were the reasons for his demotion and how did it reflect in the team's approach? (Extra points if you can predict whether or not he'll start in this one!)

DC: First of all I was surprised Joo Min-kyu was chosen to lead the attack ahead of Junior, mainly because I thought Joo was added to the squad for K League depth rather than to be rotated in for an ACL match.  But he repaid our manager Kim Do-hoon with that all-important equaliser, so it shows what I know!

Junior has been going through something of a dry spell by his own high standards, scoring two goals in ten appearances. However, I don't think his role as Kim Do-hoon's first-choice striker is under threat just yet. In my opinion, his link-up play and ability to create his own chances in and around the box mean he still offers that bit more than Joo Min-kyu, who is more of an old-fashioned target man.  As long as Junior is not carrying a knock, I strongly suspect he will be back in the starting lineup this Wednesday night.     

RS: Both teams were given breaks by their domestic leagues over the weekend to focus on the round of 16. How important do you think that break has been for Ulsan?

DC: Well looking at the fact that Jeonbuk only picked up a point against Suwon at the weekend, Ulsan's decision to take the weekend off seems to have been a good one.  The time off will surely have been used to thoroughly study footage of the first leg  what went right and where to improve.  With regards to the likelihood of Ulsan progressing in this competition, the increased preparation can only be a good thing.  However, I just hope the domestic game they now have in hand turns out to be a win too.

RS: Can/will Ulsan win both legs?

DC:  Yes, and a fairly confident yes.  As a long time watcher of Ulsan, I know in previous seasons we have had a tendency to make things difficult for ourselves after taking the lead.  We love to sit back and protect what we have, as opposed to going out and simply trying to win the second leg like we would any other game - which has come back to bite us hard in the past.

But, I am coming round to the thinking that this Ulsan team is different.  From our 2012 ACL winners Kang Min-soo and Lee Keun-ho, to players with European experience like Kim Bo-kyung and Park Joo-ho, Ulsan have a squad that has been there and done that. In fact, the average age of a Horangi player last Wednesday was almost thirty.   This team was not assembled to try and win things in a few years time, they are at the stage of their careers where they want it now.  And why not?  I'm confident Kim Do-hoon's men can get the job done in this second leg with a 2-0 victory and march on to the quarter-finals. 

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