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ACL Round 1 Opposition Research: Ulsan Hyundai

Hello from rainy Seoul, by the time this goes out, I’ll already be  starting the journey down to Ulsan for the match.  I (virtually) sat down with Will Evans of The K-League Tour to find out a little about Beijing Guoan’s opening Asian Champions League opponent, Ulsan Hyundai.  I know absolutely nothing about the K-League, but thanks to Will, I know a little about what to watch out for tonight.  Also, don’t adjust your tv sets, Guoan won’t be wearing their “watermelon skins” home kit, the AFC has ruled that the subliminal print on the kit is an ad that is bigger than AFC regulations, so the team will instead by outfitted in a solid green kit that sort of has a retro feel to it.
How are Ulsan currently doing in the K-League?
Will: The K-League begins this week, with Ulsan facing off against Pohang Steelers in the opening match [editor: a match they ended up winning 1-0]. Expectations will be high, following their great form in the latter stages of last season’s campaign. After finishing in 6th place during the regular season, Ulsan took the playoffs by storm; beating K-League giants Seoul and Suwon on the way to the final. Unfortunately the team fell at the last hurdle; losing the final to Jeonbuk Motors. Nonetheless, 2011 represented a successful season for the club, and they will be hoping to go one stage further this year by clinching the league title. With the K-League removing the play-off system for this campaign a title challenge may be a little beyond this Ulsan side, but they should certainly achieve another Top 6 finish.

What are the expectations for Ulsan going into the ACL?
Will: With the K-League currently one of the strongest domestic competitions in Asia, all the competing Korean teams will believe that they can lift the Champions League trophy this season. However, Ulsan’s expectations are probably a little lower than the established powerhouses of Korean football (Seongnam, Pohang and Jeonbuk) and elimination in the quarter final would be seen as a reasonable achievement.

Can you give any introduction about the team?  How would you describe them to someone who knows nothing about Korean soccer?
Will: Owned by industrial giants Hyundai, Ulsan are a well funded club with a reasonably successful history. They have won the K-League on two occasions, and lifted the FA Cup in 1998. Ulsan’s last silverware came as recently as 2011 when they defeated Busan I’Park in the final of the (now defunct) League Cup. The south coast club play in the football-specific Munsu Stadium, known as the ‘Big Crown’ ground to fans of the team. Ulsan have a reputation for playing attractive attacking football, and were certainly one of the more entertaining sides to watch in 2011. With crowds of around 15,000 turning up on matchdays, Ulsan may not be one of the giants of Korean football, but they are a team that can usually be found competing at the top end of the K-League.

What is their strongest point/who is their star player(s)?
Will: Ulsan look to have an exceptionally potent strikeforce this season, thanks to the 2 Korean national team players that will be spearheading their attack in 2012. Leading the line is giant frontman Kim Shin Wook; a 6 ft 5 inches tall striker who will provide a good focal point for the team, and will be a nuisance to K-League defences across the country. He will be supported by winger Lee Keun Ho who has returned to Korea after a spell in Japan with Gamba Osaka. In the centre of the park the team will be buoyed by the solidity of ex-Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Lee Ho. The clubs strongest defender can be found in set-piece dangerman and national team captain Kwak Tae Hwi.

What weaknesses does the team have?
Will: Ulsan have been rocked by the recent news that Brazilian striker Lucio is refusing to return to Korea after spending the post-season break back in his homeland. The frontman was a key part of Ulsans attacking plans for the 2012 season, and his absence leaves the team a little short on quality foreign imports. The club also lost 2002 World Cup veteran Seol Ki Hyeon to Incheon in the close-season, and his experience may well be missed in the dressing room.

If you were to make a prediction, how do you think they’ll do in the ACL this year?
Will: I would expect Ulsan to reach the quarter final stages of the competition this season.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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