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scouting

ACL Final Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Persepolis FC

K League's Ulsan Hyundai will face Persepolis FC of Iran in the AFC Champions League Final this Saturday evening. 

Kim Do-hoon's side have won a remarkable eight games in a row since landing in Qatar, but their opponents, the current Persian Gulf Pro League champions and 2018 ACL Finalists Persepolis FC, will be refreshed and looking to deal out more for heartbreak for the Horangi faithful. 

Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon previews the climactic match in a memorable season for Kim Do-hoon's men.   

Last Time Out

Ulsan Hyundai 2-1 Vissel Kobe (AET)
Ulsan booked a place in their first AFC Champions League Final in eight years with a come-from-behind victory over Japan's Vissel Kobe in the semi.

The Horangi had the better of the first half but squandered early chances through winger Kim In-sung. They were made to pay shortly after the break when Kobe's Hotaru Yamguchi drilled home from a neat corner kick routine.

Kobe were then denied a second goal by VAR before substitute Bjorn Johnsen scored his fifth of the competition, deflecting a Yoon Bit-garam shot to wrong-foot the keeper and equalise in the 81st minute.

Both keepers distinguished themselves with excellent saves in an enthralling extra time period, butKobe guardian Daiya Maekawa went from hero to villain in the dying moments -- his fumble in the box allowed Júnior Negrão to get between him and the ball, then, in his scramble to regain control, the 26-year-old keeper brought Júnior down for a last minute penalty, which the K League Golden Boot winner dispatched with aplomb.


Al Nassr 1-1 Persepolis FC (Persepolis win 5-3 on pens)
The Tehran giants qualified for their second ACL Final in three years thanks to a penalty shootout triumph over Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia back in October.

The competition's current top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah put Al-Nassr ahead in the first half with a cheeky Panenka penalty, but Persepolis were level within six minutes thanks to a neat header from Mehdi Abdi Qara.

Persepolis hung on for extra time, and had to dig even deeper when winger Ehsan Pahlevan was sent off after the hundred-minute mark for a second bookable offence.

But the Persian Gulf Pro League champions managed to take it all the way to penalties where a miss from Al-Nassr's Brazilian defender Maicon gave Ali Shojaei the chance to send Yahya Golmohammadi's men through, which he took with an admirable lack of fuss.


Previous Meetings

Persepolis have never faced Ulsan before -- indeed they have never faced Korean opposition in any of their nine ACL campaigns.

Likewise, this will be Ulsan's first game against Iranian opponents. The Horangi are unbeaten against teams from West Asia though -- they defeated Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan as well as Saudi giants Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli on their way to the 2012 ACL title.

One member of Ulsan's current squad has faced Persepolis before though -- in the 2018 Asian Champions League Final. Jung Sung-hyun was part of the Kashima Antlers defence that kept clean sheets in both legs of the final, helping the J-League side to lift their first ever continental trophy. His knowledge of the Iranian side will surely come in handy. 

FNR

Team News

Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon has won plaudits throughout the competition for successfully rotating his lineup while winning games with some smart substitutions.

But in one way he hasn't had much choice but to tinker with his starting XI. The Horangi only managed to play one fixture before the competition was suspended back in February, meaning Kim has had to navigate his way through a packed schedule of eight games in just under three weeks in Qatar.

The six days rest before Saturday's final will have been very welcome then, as the first-choice players have had time to recharge and maybe nurse a few knocks.

The Ulsan players have been able to take a welcome break after a hectic schedule of 8 games in 23 days

Unlike their opponents, Ulsan don't have any suspensions to contend with, nor do they have any fresh injury worries.

The only question then is who does Kim put on the pitch for kick off and who does he bring off the bench to impact the game. The former Incheon United manager has a reputation for being somewhat conservative in the big games, often preferring to use the move direct players like Kim In-sung and Lee Keun-ho as aces up his sleeve to bring out when the game is stretched.

With that in mind, it will be most interesting to see who starts in the fullback positions. Park Joo-ho and Jeong Dong-ho, the more defensive pairing, got the nod in the semi-final, with the more forward-thinking duo of Kim Tae-hwan and Hong Chul being introduced only after Ulsan fell behind.

As Persepolis are widely considered to be most dangerous from wide areas, Kim may well make that same decision again.

The Adversary

After battling their way to two of the last three ACL finals, Persepolis have cemented their spot as a powerhouse of West Asian football. However, most of the talk ahead of Saturday's showdown has been about the players the Tehran-based team will be missing from their lineup.

Manager Yahya Golmohammadi will be without attacking midfielders Ehsan Pahlevan and Vahid Amiri through suspension, while striker Issa Alekasir, who scored four goals in the opening rounds, will also miss out after receiving a six-month ban for making a racist gesture in the quarterfinal against Uzbekistan's Pakhtakor Tashkent.

Head Coach Yahya Golmohammadi has plenty to think about ahead of Saturday's final (photo: Tehran Times)

Add to that the  sale of talismanic central defender Shoja Khalilzadeh just weeks after their semi-final win and it seems Persepolis have been sliding downhill since October.

They do possess some talented players though. Iraqi midfielder Bashar Resan, one of the few players who also faced Kashima two years ago, will be the main creative force, with fullbacks Siamak Nemati and Saeed Aghaei providing a threat from the wings.

But Golmohammadi will be mainly relying on his defence to provide a platform for victory. Journeyman goalkeeper Hamed Lak has looked assured between the sticks, while Persepolis boast the vastly experienced defender Jalaleddin Hosseini amongst their ranks. The 38-year-old has seen it all while picking up 103 caps for Iran.


What To Watch

Will Ulsan leave it late again?
Ulsan are the top scorers in this year's competition with 21 goals in nine games -- and most notably, ten of those goals have come in the final ten minutes of the ninety.

The Horangi may have cruised through the group stage, qualifying top of the pack with a game to spare, but it could have been very different had they not scored in the dying moments in both their encounters with a young Perth Glory side. Likewise, they needed an 82nd minute strike from Yoon Bit-garam to see off FC Tokyo.

Then of course, there was Júnior's 119th minute penalty to take them to the final.

Kim In-sung twice came to Ulsan's rescue in back-to-back wins over Perth Glory

Of course, the perseverance and fitness levels that Ulsan have shown are indications of their improved physical and mental strength. Perhaps after losing both this season's K League and FA Cup just before travelling to Qatar, the Horangi have had enough of stumbling at the last hurdle.

But with Persepolis being so difficult to break down and famed for their determination, Ulsan might be made to pay if they leave it too late to put a chance or two away.

FNR


Prediction

This year's final looks like a contrast in styles, made all the more intriguing by the fact it is a one-off match at a neutral ground.

On paper Ulsan have several advantages -- they have the momentum after winning all eight of their games in Qatar, they have become used to their surroundings in the COVID bubble whereas Persepolis have had to acclimatise all over again, and they have the talent available to get the job done.

Meanwhile, Persepolis showed great strength and mental fortitude to see off the likes of Al-Sadd and Al-Nassr on their way to this game. And of course the experience of the 2018 final loss will be fresh in their minds, although much of that squad has since moved on.

It is sure to be a tight encounter -- Ulsan may look like a free-scoring, attacking outfit, but Kim Do-hoon likes to play his cards close to his chest in the early stages. Likewise, Persepolis will be happy to sit deep and keep it 0-0 for as long as they can.

Of course, goals change games as we saw when Ulsan took an early 2-0 lead over Beijing in the quarterfinals. But in terms of the most likely scenario, this match will probably be decided by just a goal or two with a high chance of late drama.

Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-0 Persepolis FC

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