Soccer-Ulsan ready for continental glory after domestic disappointment

Michael Church
·2-min read
AFC Champions League - Quarter Final - Ulsan Hyundai v Beijing Guoan

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Ulsan Hyundai have become known as the 'nearly men' of South Korean football over the last two seasons but on Saturday Kim Do-hoon's team can sweep aside their domestic disappointment by beating Iran's Persepolis in the Asian Champions League final.

Runners-up in the K League the last two seasons, and in the FA Cup this year, they won Asia's elite club competition in 2012 and a win at the Al Janoub Stadium would reinforce the idea that the good times are back in Ulsan.

"Before we came here, morale was low in our squad because we had lost two domestic titles," Kim said after their semi-final win over Japan's Vissel Kobe."But after we arrived here the players tried to enjoy the moment and we tried to make our own atmosphere as a team."

Ulsan have failed to win just once in their nine games so far – a 1-1 draw with FC Tokyo in the group phase prior to the COVID-19 shutdown.

And they have been impressive since arriving in Doha, where the bulk of the Asian Champions League has been played during this COVID-19 affected season.

Their run to the final saw them defeat a strong Beijing Guoan in the quarter-finals before their extra-time win over Kobe.

Creative midfielder Yoon Bit-garam is at the heart of the team with Kim In-sung and former Premier League star Lee Chung-yong providing pace from the flanks.

Brazilian striker Junior Negrao is an ever-present threat at centre forward and a strong bench adds to Ulsan's potency.

Only one player, veteran winger Lee Keun-ho, remains in the squad from the side that won the Asian title in 2012 but this Ulsan team possesses the talent and guile to add a second continental crown.

Ulsan take on a Persepolis side that are much changed from the one that finished runners-up to Japan’s Kashima Antlers in the competition in 2018 and which qualified for this year's final in early October.

The Tehran club have been hit hard by suspensions with Ehsan Pahlavan and Vahid Amiri ruled out for the final while key striker Issa Alekassir is serving a six-month ban for a "discriminatory gesture” during their quarter-final win over Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor.

Yahya Golmohammadi and his team arrived in Doha earlier in the week to begin their preparations having last played on Nov. 30 when they notched up a 3-0 win over Shahr Khodrou in their domestic league.

With almost three weeks to rest and prepare, Persepolis will be hoping to end a drought for Iranian clubs that extends back to Pas’ victory in the competition's forerunner, the Asian Club Championship, in 1993.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)