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ACL Semifinal Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs Vissel Kobe

There are now only two teams left in the East Zone following Thursday night's quarterfinals - K League side Ulsan Hyundai and J League side Vissel Kobe.  The last time the Horangi made it this deep into the tournament, they won it back in 2012.  Vissel Kobe are in the tournament for the first time this season and have looked impressive most of the way, but had to fend off a stubborn Suwon Samsung Bluewings via penalties in the last round, while Júnior Negrão potted a brace against Beijing Guoan for Ulsan's secure passage through.  Another semifinal between teams from rival leagues will prove to be a tough one to call.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the match.

Match: Ulsan Hyundai vs Vissel Kobe
Venue: Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium
Kickoff: Sunday December 13th, 2020; 19:00 KST

Last Time Out

Ulsan Hyundai 2-0 Beijing Guoan

A first half brace from Júnior Negrão stood up as Ulsan now find themselves in a position to do something which they have not accomplished in almost a decade - play in the final of Asia's premier football competition.  A handball in the 20th minute led to the Brazilian's first goal from the penalty spot.  Beijing then cranked up the pressure surging forward in droves but failed to pierce the Horangi back four.

That would pay dividends with just minutes remaining before the break, when Júnior found himself with acres of space outside the penalty area and confidently smashed the ball into the net from distance, for one of the best goals he has scored in this calendar year.

The second half painted a bit of a different picture, as Beijing continued to pressure, but Jo Su-huk was up to the task and made several key saves to preserve the clean sheet.  Ulsan did however look somewhat loose on occasion defensively, suggesting that a look or two will be had in film study prior to Sunday night's match.  In all, it marks seven consecutive wins and a huge dose of momentum ahead of their most important match of the season.


Vissel Kobe 1(7)-1(6) Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Vissel Kobe had to struggle to progress through to the semifinal, barely edging past a stout Suwon Samsung Bluewings side that played the majority of the match with ten men.  Park Kun-ha's men went in front early thanks to Park Sang-hyeok, who headed in Kim Tae-hwan's inch-perfect cross from the right.  

Suwon looked strong going forward and had a relatively strong grip on proceedings, that is, until the tides turned in the 37th minute, when Kim Tae-hwan, provider of the first goal, was sent off with a straight red for denying a goal scoring opportunity in the area.  The original call had been for a penalty, but VAR overturned the spot kick and Suwon went down a man instead.  Kyogo Furuhashi took full advantage, squeezing the ensuing free kick under the wall and behind Yang Hyung-mo to send the teams to the break on level terms.

Despite their efforts, Kobe could not find a way through the Suwon defense in the second half, as Bluewings kept their shape well and solidified themselves in the middle of the park.  Ko Seung-beom was particularly active and was one of Suwon's better performers on the night overall.  With regulation time unable to choose a victor, the match went to extra time.  Only a goal line clearance from Yang Sang-min kept the match level with the final fifteen minutes of sudden death left to play.

The second fifteen minutes also could not produce a goal, sending the final verdict to penalties.  Both clubs were successful on their first six kicks each, but Jang Ho-ik skied his penalty over the bar, while Noriaki Fujimoto deposited his low into the net to set up a date with the competition's hottest team of the moment on Sunday night.


Team News

Ulsan Hyundai

The Horangi have won seven straight and will look to book their place in the final against Persepolis next Saturday.
Júnior brought his goal tally to four for the tournament with his brace against Beijing.  The attacking options for Ulsan are plentiful, with both Bjørn Johnsen and Yoon Bit-garam also on good form of late.  Add in the midfield play of Kim In-sung, which was a feature of their win last time out and you have a recipe for success.  Kim's ability to hold up play to secure possession led to several offensive chances for Ulsan and they easily could have won by more than two goals.  Jo Su-huk had his best match of the tournament since stepping in for Jo Hyun-woo, and that bodes well for the squad ahead of the semifinal.

Ulsan's back four will be critical to their success as well.  Dave Bulthuis made a critical block midway through the second half to prevent a potential goal, and the unit was able to hold it together to preserve the win.  They will have to be wary of Vissel moving forward, and will have to protect the flanks as best they can, as the Japanese side like to send balls into the box from the wings.

The match winner credits a shift in mentality by the team as a precursor to their recent success.

"We have shown, here in the ACL, a different side to us," he began.

"We learned from our mistakes in the league and tried not to repeat them.  We moved on and forgot what happened in Korea and started again here with a different and stronger mentality, that is why we keep winning and we want to go all the way to the final."

Lee Keun-ho, Kim Tae-hwan, Won Du-jae and Sin Jin-ho are all on yellow cards going into the match.  Should Ulsan progress to the final, those cautions will be rescinded, providing they are not booked against Vissel Kobe.

Vissel Kobe

Noriaki Fujimoto scored the winning penalty to clinch a semi-final spot in the club's first-ever ACL campaign.  Photo courtesy of AFC.
Vissel Kobe are now at somewhat of a disadvantage having played through extra time and penalties against Suwon.  Andrés Iniesta made a brief appearance as a substitute in extra time but looked to have re-aggravated a right thigh injury after converting his penalty at the end of the match.  It looks as though he will not be available for the match against Ulsan, leaving to question how Kobe will mount offensive pressure in his absence, especially with Ulsan being such a perennial threat on the counter.

Douglas struggled mightily against Suwon's defenders, and could well be in for another long night on Sunday.  He squandered several opportunities in front of goal, but that does not mean in the least that he should be discounted.  He could well be looking to redeem himself after a subpar performance and that is something that BulthuIs and Co. must be attentive to.

Noriaki Fujimoto, who came on as an extra time substitute, and converted the clinching penalty, was happy to have a part in his team's success.

"Even though it went 90 minutes with extra time on top of that, the team really came together.  Until now I haven’t been contributing, so I wanted to get the job done. And I was happy to be able to execute,” he said.

Ryuho Kikuchi, Yutaro Oda, and goal scorer Kyogo Furuhashi all carry a caution into the match on Sunday night.  Kikuchi and Furuhashi will likely start, but Oda will likely come from the bench as he did against Suwon.


Ulsan have been unstoppable of late, and many tip them to continue that trend when they face Kobe on Sunday night.  Despite having a man advantage for most of the match against Suwon, the Japanese side looked worn out at the conclusion of the match in comparison to their Korean counterparts.

Ulsan are on top of their confidence at the moment, and the group realizes they are on the cusp of something special.  Their play in the competition this year has been nothing short of exceptional; they have not been this deep in since the year they won, back in 2012.  It's time to take the next step and book a place in next Saturday's final against Iranian champions Persepolis.

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