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Club World Cup: Ulsan Hyundai vs Tigres UANL Writer's Chat

The FIFA Club World Cup kicks off on Thursday night with AFC Champions League winners Ulsan Hyundai taking on CONCACAF Champions League winners Tigres UANL.  The Horangi have seen quite a few changes in the off-season, with several players from their championship-winning side having relocated elsewhere.  Hong Myung-bo is the new man in charge and he has a massive task in front of him.  He has an opportunity to set the tone for the upcoming season, but his Mexican counterparts will not be an easy test.  In an interview arranged by Daniel Croydon, Branko Belan took time to speak with Luis Leos ahead of the encounter. 

Branko Belan Asks, Luis Leos Answers

BB: Could you tell us a bit about Tigres, their recent history and how they came to be playing in the Club World Cup?

LL: Tigres is a team from the state of Nuevo León, in northern Mexico, that carries the State University’s name (Tigres UANL).  We have a very boisterous, loyal, passionate, and demanding fan base. Arguably the best and most supportive fan base in North America.  Tigres is living in its golden era having won 5 local league titles in the last 10 years.  In addition to the CCL cup, Tigres also reached the Libertadores final in 2015.

Tigres finished Concacaf Champions League with 5 straight victories, but were seconds away from elimination in the game against Alianza FC (El Salvador) in the opening of the second round.  However, due to a miraculous, stoppage time, goal from our goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, we managed to advance to the quarterfinals and the rest is history.

BB: What condition is the team in at the moment? Has this trip to Qatar come at a good time?

LL: The team is in form and playing well.  Three of our best strikers have had covid and injury-related issues, however, I foresee at least the starters being available to play by February 4th so this shouldn’t be a major setback come time to face Ulsan Hyundai.

BB: Who are some of the Tigres players Ulsan fans should be looking out for?

LL: Keep a close watch on André-Pierre Gignac, a strong and explosive striker that can score from all angles and change the dynamic of the match very quickly.  Our two center-backs, Carlos Salcedo and Hugo Ayala are also at the top in their class and should challenge Ulsan’s centre-forward.

BB: How do you see this game going and what are your expectations for the tournament as a whole?

LL: I see Tigres dominating possession and slowly creating chances in the final third.  Tigres plays best when there is empty space behind them and the opponent is having to defend in a low block.  I’m hopeful that our wingers will be active and delivering quality crosses to Gignac and Carlos González.  I don’t see Tigres scoring early but I do think they’ll advance with perhaps a two-nil win.

Tigres has a roster good enough to compete with the best in the world it’s just a matter of motivation and circumstance.  In the past, Tigres have played in international matches where they lacked focus and drive, so that is always a concern with this squad.  This time, though, I believe the team is up for the challenge and will reach the final.  Once there, anything is possible...perhaps even another miracle.

Luis Leos Asks, Branko Belan Answers

LL: What do you like about Ulsan Hyundai?  How did you become an Ulsan Tigers supporter?

BB: The thing which really stood out for me during their Champions League run in Doha last year was the free-flowing style they implemented going forward.  They were also defensively sound and contributions came from a number of players throughout the squad.  The overall team concept was perhaps the biggest contributing factor in their success.

Speaking from the perspective as a club, Ulsan gave me my first exposure to football in Korea, as I lived there for five years.  Having experienced their 2012 Asian Champions League triumph first hand, I can say very honestly that night at Munsu is still one of the best of my football life, and having the chance to cover them during last year's tournament was equally special.  It's a bit difficult to know just how things are going to look heading into the 2021 season, but there are still a lot of pieces there for the team to be competitive, and I fully expect to see that on Thursday night as well.  

LL: What can you tell us about Ulsan Hyundai's new coach?  What playing style is he trying to implement at the club?

BB: Hong Myung-bo is a Korean football legend.  He's previously coached the national team, but this is his first appointment with a domestic club in his home country, so expectations will be lofty to say the least.  Ulsan have come close to winning the league in each of the past two seasons, so they will be expected to contend once again this year.

He spent a considerable amount of his playing career in Korea, mostly with POSCO Atoms in the early to late nineties and was known chiefly as an offensive libero with adept vision.  He had success managing the national team as well, winning the bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012 with the likes of Koo Ja-cheol, Jung Woo-young, Park Chu-young and Ji Dong-won in the side.  

The arrivals of Lukas Hinterseer and Lee Dong-jun should help them up front.  Dave Bulthuis and Kim Kee-hee will be the backbone in defense, with the latter being named squad captain for the competition.  Overall, I would see a balanced approach for the time being while they sort out what the team will look like going into the season.  

LL: I've read that Ulsan Hyundai is undergoing a massive restructuring.  Out of the 11 that started in the final versus Persepolis, how many remain with the club?  Which in the starting 11 left the club?

BB: As already mentioned, Dave Bulthuis and Kim Kee-hee are still at the club and will be key players for the team in 2021.  Jo Hyun-woo is back with the team after missing out on the Champions League after having tested positive for COVID-19.  Park Joo-ho left in the off-season, as did K League Golden Boot winner Júnior Negrão, who will be missed not only for his goal production but also his charisma.  The Brazilian was a fixture not only for the club but also for the K League during his time in Korea.  

Also gone are Shin Jin-ho, Bjørn Johnsen, Jung Seung-hyun, who is completing his military service and veteran Lee Keun-ho, who left for Daegu.  The departures in the off-season have been considerable, but the hope is that the new additions will have a positive impact.  Unfortunately, Lee Dong-gyeong, Hong Chul and Lee Chung-yong are all out injured for Thursday's match.

LL: Which players do you think will be pivotal in attacking Tigres UANL's midfield and backline?

BB: Won Du-jae had an excellent season last year and will be counted on with a bigger role this season.  Yoon Bit-garam was MVP of last year's Asian Champions League and will be a key figure in everything Ulsan does offensively.  Kim In-sung is a constant threat on the left, never shy to run at defenders.

K League United would like to thank Luis Leos for taking the time for the interview.  For more information about Tigres UANL in English, follow him on Twitter.  


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