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AFC Champions League Preview: Kawasaki Frontale vs. Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan Hyundai head across the East Sea to Japan this Tuesday to take on J.League side Kawasaki Frontale for Group I Matchday 2 in the 2023-2024 AFC Champions League. Ulsan draw to Pohang Steelers last time out to make it one win in five in the league but take on a fallen J.League giant in Frontale who suffered defeat to mid-table Albirex Niigata at the weekend.

Overview & Match Information

Fixture: Kawasaki Frontale (JPN) vs. Ulsan Hyundai (KOR)
Competition: 2023-2024 AFC Champions League Group I, Matchday 2
Venue: Todoroki Sports Park, Kawasaki
Date: Tuesday 3rd October 2023, 19:00

Two teams who are no strangers to each other meet for the 10th time and the seventh time in the last six years. It's the second of six Korea vs. Japan clashes in the ACL this season, K League teams have the edge so far thanks to Incheon's win over Yokohama F. Marinos.

Recent Form

Both Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai head into their Champions League having failed to win their last league match. Tuesday's hosts Kawasaki lost 3-2 at home to Albirex Niigata, despite taking the lead and then drawing level at 2-2 with 15 minutes to go. The defeat brought to an end a run of three straight wins.

Ulsan, meanwhile, drew 0-0 away to Pohang Steelers in the third East Coast Derby of the season. Glass half-full and the Horangi are four unbeaten in all competitions, however. But in league play, Hong Myung-bo's men have one win in five and just three in 10.

In terms of the ACL, both Kawasaki Frontale and Ulsan Hyundai got off to winning starts. Hosts Kawasaki earned a 1-0 win away to Malaysian side Johor Darul Ta'zim - Marcinho with the game's only goal on 45 minutes - while Ulsan earned a 3-1 win at home over BG Pathum United of Thailand, Martin Ádám with a hat-trick.

Team News

Brazilian centre back Jesiel and attacking midfielder Ryota Oshima are said to be ruled out through injury. In the win over Shonan Bellmare, Shintaro Kurumaya and Asahi Sasaki both went off injured and haven’t been seen since.

Ulsan will continue to be without Um Won-sang and Seol Young-woo due to their participation in the Asian Games. Kim Tae-hwan and Lee Myung-jae were the preferred full backs against Pohang on Saturday while Kim Young-gwon, normally a centre back, was deployed as a holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 with Lim Jong-eun drafted in for what was just his second league start of the campaign.

With the East Coast Derby a game that Ulsan simply could not afford to lose, Coach Hong seemingly looked to make Ulsan difficult to break down before bringing on the likes of Qazaishvili and Martin Adam late on. Ulsan's shape in the home fixture with BG Pathum United was Hong's preferred 4-2-3-1.


Another ACL campaign and another Ulsan-Kawasaki meeting. The two teams met in 2022, 2021, 2019, 2018, and 2014. In the Group Stage last year, also Group I, the two teams first played out a 1-1 draw with a 94th-minute Shintaro Kurumaya strike cancelling out Leonardo's 21st-minute opener. The second meeting of 2022 ended in a 3-2 Ulsan win with Leonardo, Um Won-sang, and Qazaishvili on target for the Horangi and a Leandro Damião brace for the Japanese side.

Overall, there have been nine previous meetings with Ulsan winning five, losing just once, and drawing three. All but one have been in the Group Stage of the competition with the 2021 encounter coming in the Round of 16 when Ulsan won 3-2 on penalties following a 0-0 draw. As the 2022 and 2021 campaigns were played in neutral territory owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ulsan's last trip to Kawasaki was in the 2019 Group Stage, earning a 2-2 draw in Matchday 4. 


ACL Records

Kawasaki Frontale have never won the AFC Champions League, despite domestic dominance between 2017 and 2021. The furthest they have reached in the competition is the quarterfinals and have made it that far on three occasions, 2007, 2009, and 2017. Last year, Kawasaki Frontale finished second in Group I but didn't make it through as one of their best-placed group runners-up. The last time Kawasaki made it out of the group stage they were knocked out in the Round of 16 by Ulsan.

Kawasaki have faced other K League teams in ACL, despite the constant meetings with Ulsan over the past few seasons. Their record reads played 19, won eight, drawn four, and lost seven having beaten FC Seoul, Daegu, and Suwon Bluewings.

The Adversary

Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images

Q: Kawasaki Frontale sitting ninth in the table is perhaps an unusual sight for people who haven't paid close attention to J.League this season. What's gone wrong? 

A: There are a few possible explanations I think, some of which I believe are more convincing than others. The main thing people say is that we’ve lost too many of our good young players to transfers to European teams. Whilst this has obviously had an impact I think we still have a decent group of players so shouldn’t be in the mess we are in. Also, it seems pretty clear that a lot of our players have got just a bit too old and a bit too slow at the same time. There are members of our squad who were very important a few years ago but aren’t up to the same level any more. This connects to what I believe is the main problem and that’s the manager. Toru Oniki has achieved a lot at Frontale and took us to our first-ever titles, and plenty of them at that. However, I think he’s only ever had one way of doing things and his tactics have been found out since last year. He seems to be an ultra-conservative manager and is unwilling to change his approach even when things clearly aren’t working. He also seems to still have faith in players who are shadows of their former two years ago selves. So basically, blind faith in players and tactics that are past it. I should stress that this is how I see it, but there is still a large section of the fan base who prefer other explanations for our slump.

Q: With the league title out of reach, is ACL the priority?

A: Last year we set the ACL as our big goal and failed to make it out of the group. This year, the goal was the league and we’ve clearly messed that up too. Now our only chance of salvaging anything from this season is either the Emperor’s Cup, (playing in the semi-final next, but I’m not exactly optimistic), or the ACL. So I guess both of those competitions are equally our priority. But I think it’s more a case of focus on what we theoretically still have a chance in. And I’m not sure us focusing on something will have any particular positive effect when we’re so completely at sea.

Q: There was something of a return to form with three wins in three but then they lost to Niigata. How much of an impact will this result have on the Ulsan match?

A: Probably not much. We very much played the reserves, (as much as that is possible), in that game so I’d expect the team to be quite different. Traditionally Oniki has always played 4-3-3 but as I mentioned previously this style has now really been found out. For a couple of the three wins, we went 3-5-2 and played a bit better. Against Niigata, we were back to 4-3-3 and back to losing again. Pretty sure the team and approach will be almost the same as it was against Johor.

Q: Who are Frontale's potential match winners for this Ulsan game?

A: Perhaps a clanger from the ref or an own goal. I know I’m resolutely pessimistic, but we’re just horrible at the moment. Our three wins came against Johor, where we didn’t offer much and then against two teams in horrible form in the league. No players are playing particularly well at the moment. We’re unlikely to see any surprise selections play in this game, so sadly for us, I suspect it will be pretty grim stuff. We recently made a big signing (perhaps) of 38-year-old Bafetimbi Gomis up front. A few weeks ago, perhaps we would have said he would be the threat. But he really hasn’t yet shown much at all.

Q: What can we expect tactically?

A: 4-3-3, loads of pointless passing along the back line which when it looks like it’s finally starting to go somewhere, results in a pass back to our keeper from the opposition penalty box. We usually pass the ball nicely. Not as nicely as we used to though. But our attack is pretty blunt this year. When we play 4-3-3, whoever we play up front in the middle is destined to not do much. Unless we switch to the 3-5-2 which we’ve experimented with recently which seems a bit more effective. But I very much doubt that will happen. And at the back, it seems we’ve always got a bit of calamity defending in us. 

Q: Score prediction?

At this early stage in the group, perhaps I can hope we can get a draw if both teams want to consolidate their positions after opening match day wins. But we are having difficulty scoring and are conceding for fun. So, how about a supremely optimistic 1-1 with our goal coming from an extremely contentious penalty?

by Neil Debnam from Frontale Rabbit

What to Watch

On paper this fixture is about as big as it gets in the competition, barring K League champions taking on the J1 League champions. It is, however, the K League champions facing a side that had, until last season, won J.League four out of the previous five years. Ulsan sitting eight points clear with six games to go also means that a second straight K League title is just a matter of time. But, the Horangi have had a thorn in their paws of late and are still trying to play their way back into form. Kawasaki, too, sitting ninth in the table, looked like they had done that in the build-up to the Niigata game with three straight wins but defeat to a side two places below them will be a bit of a blow. What will be worth taking note of on Tuesday is how the two teams put their league form to one side and concentrate on reaching the knockout stages of the ACL for the first time since 2021. 

Who to Watch

Martin Adam, Ulsan Hyundai

Powerful striker Martin Adam was given the nod to start against BG Pathum United in Matchday 1 for what was just his 14th start this campaign. But he repaid the manager's faith by scoring a hat-trick and helping the Horangi earn a 3-1 win. Against Suwon FC in the following league game, the Hungary international was afforded a starting berth and teed up Lee Dong-gyeong to make it 1-0, but was replaced by Joo Min-kyu on 71 minutes. He was back on the bench again for Saturday's East Coast Derby draw with Pohang at the weekend. Whether he'll start or not remains to be seen but what is clear is that Hong Myung-bo looks to Martin Adam to make an impact off the bench. In what should be a tight game, Martin Adam will be looked upon to link play up and make his presence in the box felt. He's ninth in the division for shots per 90 minutes with 2.72, 17th for shooting accuracy at 46%, ninth for headed shots on goal with 14, and 13th for touches in the box per 90 with 3.67.

Yasuto Wakizaka, Kawasaki Frontale

Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images
With seven goals and six assists, 28-year-old attacking midfielder Yasuto Wakizaka will be seen as Kawasaki's dangerman. No player has scored or assisted more for Kawasaki this season and 13 goal contributions ranks the Japanese international 11th in J1 in that regard. He also has two goals and two assists in the J.League Cup from five appearances. The accuracy of his passes to the final third is 80% which ranks him 19th overall, while 46 deep completions is the second most in the league.

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