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ACL Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. FC Tokyo

Ulsan Hyundai kick off their 2020 Asian Champions League campaign this Tuesday night at home to J League runners-up FC Tokyo. With a new pitch and plenty of new faces hoping to make an early impression on manager Kim Do-hoon, this should be an exciting return to Munsu Stadium for the Horangi.  To get perspectives on the fixture from both sides, Ulsan columnist Dan Croydon spoke to Alex Bishop from FC Tokyo Kai-Guys, a Twitter account that provides English-language content on all things FC Tokyo. 

Match: AFC Asian Champions League Group F
              Ulsan Hyundai vs. FC Tokyo
Venue:  Munsu Football Stadium
Kickoff: Tuesday, February 11, 2020; 19:30 KST

Dan Croydon Asks, Alex  Answers

DC: This year sees the return of FC Tokyo the ACL after a few seasons away. How did they qualify and what do you put last season's improvements down to?

AB: Yes we return to the ACL after a 4-year absence. Last year we achieved much of our success at the beginning of the season. We can put this down to an effective counter-attacking system spearheaded by Brazilian forward Diego Oliveira and speedster Kensuke Nagai. However, the contribution made by young Takefusa Kubo can not be understated. He was the creative force in our team and the focal point of our attack. Things just weren't the same after he went to Real Madrid and it showed on the pitch.

DC: Have the club moved to strengthen during the offseason?

AB: New additions to the squad include stocky forward, Adailton from Jubilo Iwata, and wide attacker Leandro from Kashima Antlers. It seems both were signed with our new 4-3-3 system in mind. We have also strengthened the defence by bringing in Lebanese center back Joan Oumari from Vissel Kobe. He is likely to feature in the game against Ulsan and was obviously acquired for his experience of the different playing styles we will come across in our ACL campaign.

DC: FC Tokyo qualified for the group stages after winning their playoff 2-0 against Ceres Negros of the Philipines. Were they deserved winners, and what did you learn from that game?

AB: On the day of the game we experienced heavy rain here in Tokyo. The pitch was in a horrendous state and in all honesty the game should have been called off. So it is quite difficult to make any real judgment on the team. That said, we felt that the lads dug in well and adjusted to the less than perfect conditions. The first goal from Sei Muroya was not pretty but was coming for a while. Then a nice shot from distance from Adailton sealed the win for us. Full credit to Ceres who held on for so long. The result really could have gone either way given the playing conditions on the night.

Striker Adailton scored on his debut in the 2-0 win over Ceres Negros

How do you expect your team to approach the trip to Ulsan?

AB: Without doubt this match will be a challenge for us. Despite our shift to a fancy new 4-3-3 set up, we may revert to type and go with a counter-attacking approach for this difficult fixture with the defensive shape sitting tight and compact. We will probably play balls high and long with the wing-backs also creating channels from the flanks. This may not be easy on the eye, but it is what Tokyo do well. Going with a new and untested formation may cost us valuable points here.

DC: J League teams have represented East Asia in the last three ACL Finals. Could FC Tokyo make it four in a row?

AB: We certainly hope so! In all honesty, reaching the final would exceed most of our expectations. I think qualifying from the group stage is very possible, but after that, we may struggle against the likely opposition we would face. The likes of Evergrande, Jeonbuk, and even Ulsan would be challenging for us. But who knows? Anything can happen in the ACL, right?

Alex Asks, Dan Answers

AB: It has been eight years since Ulsan and Tokyo played each other last. For our fans who are too new to remember, can tell us a bit about the background of the club and your typical playing style?

DC: Yes, those last meetings were in Group F in 2012 - the year Ulsan went on to win the competition. Hopefully, that's a good omen! Well, Ulsan Hyundai, nicknamed the Horangi (Tigers), are one of the biggest and oldest professional football teams in Korea and are run by the construction and shipbuilding arm of the Hyundai conglomerate.  Traditionally we are known to play an entertaining brand of football, but always with solid defensive foundations.  However, in recent years we have gained a reputation, probably deservedly, of promising much but ultimately falling apart when it really matters. The club will be desperate to change that perception with some silverware in 2020. 

AB: Ulsan are the only team in Group F to have previously won the ACL and are likely to advance to the knockout stages. What teams do you see as potential challengers for the trophy this year?

DC: Well I certainly don't think getting out of this group will be easy, especially with the Coronavirus messing up the schedule.  If things don't go our way in the early matches, then we could be in trouble.  I'm sure the usual suspects, the likes of SIPG, Jeonbuk, Evergrande, will go far. But from our group, Shanghai Shenhua have the Korean Alex Ferguson, Choi Kang-hee, in charge, and with all his experience and knowledge they will be a challenge for anyone in this competition.

AB: Similar to FC Tokyo, Ulsan dominated the K League for much of the 2019 season, only to let the title slip at the last hurdle. For this season will you be reshuffling the pack, or sticking with the same system that proved effective last year?

DC: Last season we concentrated on our ball retention and tried to dictate the pace of games. This proved much more successful than the counter-attacking style from the year before, so it's really a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". There have been hints in preseason that our manager Kim Do-hoon wants to be able to switch formations from a 4-5-1 to a central defensive three with wingbacks.  As I say, it's unlikely there will be a wholesale tactical change, but I think Kim knows he needs to be more tactically flexible for the big games.

Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon is under pressure to deliver after a trophyless season in 2019

How do you feel you have done in the transfer market? Is there anyone in particular Tokyo fans should look out for?

DC: Well, if we don't see much tactical change from last season for Ulsan, we'll certainly see plenty of new faces on the pitch in 2020. Our best player last year and K League MVP Kim Bo-kyung returned to Kashiwa Reysol after a year on loan, only to immediately join our rivals Jeonbuk. Losing him along with US international Mix Diskerud left a big hole in our midfield, but I'm pretty happy with their replacements, Ko Myong-jin and Yoon Bit-garam, both of whom have plenty of experience in this competition. Then we've picked up Korean international keeper Jo Hyeon-woo; centreback Jung Seung-hyun has returned from Kashima Antlers with an ACL winner's medal from a couple of years back; and then there's Bjorn Johnsen, our 6'5" Norwegian target man signed from AZ Alkmaar. Basically, we have an all-new spine to the team that could make it's debut against Tokyo. There will be plenty of players looking to impress out there this Tuesday, so I think it should be a very decent game.

Thanks to Alex Bishop from FCTokyoKaiGuys for his help with this article. Enjoy your trip to Korea Alex!

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