ACL preview: Kashima Antlers vs Ulsan Hyundai

It is that time of year again when Asia’s best clubs get together and battle it out for continental honours in the Asian Champions League. This year it will probably be followed by more people than ever due to the, what can we say……curiousity (is that the right word?) that many people have with Chinese clubs – although that didn’t really matter to Brisbane Roar, who eliminated Carlos Tevez’s Shanghai Shenhua in the qualifying round.

With the added attention, this could be a good year for a Japanese club to actually step up to the plate and give it a go. To go far in this tournament though, you have to navigate the traditionally strong Korean sides. Last year, the East Asian final was an all Korean affair, and it was Jeonbuk Hyundai that eventually went on to win the crown.

As part of giving people an in-depth look into some of the match-ups this year, Regista is teaming up with the formidable K-League United writers to give previews of some of the games. In this first one, @Matt_Binns & I take a deep dive look at J.League champions Kashima Antlers’ opener against Ulsan Hyundai.

First up, I asked Matt some questions about Ulsan Hyundai…..

Ulsan aren’t really that well known in Japan. How did they come to be in the ACL?

Ulsan had a steady season last year, not scoring many goals (joint 2nd fewest in the league) but also not conceding too regularly either, ultimately finishing fourth in the K League. With Suwon Bluewings claiming the FA Cup spot however, and thus having priority, this would mean the league’s fourth best team would be unable to compete in the ACL. Things would change dramatically though in January, with recently crowned Asian champions and 2nd placed K League side Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors being deemed ineligible for this year’s tournament due to domestic bribery offences in 2013. This meant that Jeonbuk’s place in group H would be handed to third-placed Jeju United and the league’s fourth place side would be granted access via play-offs, something that was gladly welcomed by Ulsan fans who were initially disappointed with their team’s tail off towards the end of 2016.

They just managed to scrape past Hong Kong team Kitchee on penalties in the qualifying play-off. Was that a case of Ulsan underestimating Kitchee? Or were there more underlying issues for them?

Given the circumstances on how Ulsan belatedly entered the tournament, significant changes to their pre-season schedule had to be made and so they were perhaps arguably not as ready as they should have been. In addition this, two key defenders from last season had moved to Jeonbuk with the prospect of Champions League participation in mind and one of their most influential strikers Mendy in the second half of last year left for Jeju also in search of continental football. With the announcement of their sudden inclusion in the tournament, Ulsan went swiftly about their business, signing some reasonable talent to bolster their chances, but new foreign signings such as Austrian defender Richard Windbichler and Australian attacker Dimitri Petratos arrived to late to be included for the Kitchee match. Finally, you could also argue this was their first competitive match under new manager Kim Do-hoon and perhaps his new methods are yet to come into full effect.


(image: Ulsan Hyundai Facebook)

With all these reasons though, it should also be pointed out that, on paper at least, Ulsan should have boasted more than enough talent to comfortably see off the threat Kitchee posed. They did not however due to a well organised and strong performance from the Hong Kong side, and were actually fortunate not to lose. There will be some slight concern amongst the support that it took penalties to secure their progression to this stage.

Who should Kashima be wary of in this Ulsan line up?

From last season, I feel that Croatian winger Kovačec poses the greatest threat, having scored 6 and assisted 9 throughout last season, thereby having a direct hand in over a third of Ulsan’s league goals. However, I am particularly excited to see recent signing Mislav Oršić back in action. Oršić is Kovačec’s compatriot and a player who often shone in an inconsistent Jeonnam Dragons team before a move to China last summer. The attacker will likely take up a position on one of the flanks, likely mirroring Kovačec, looking to supply fellow new signing and ex-teammate Lee Jong-ho who played alongside him at Jeonnam in 2015.

How do you think Ulsan will set up? Did they do anything different in the game against Kitchee from what they did in the league last season?

Against Kitchee, Ulsan lined up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, a variation on the 4-3-3 they seemed to employ frequently towards the end of last season. This may have been a means of coping without having all their new talent at their disposal or could just be manager Kim Do-hoon’s preference. With the inclusion of Oršić and other new faces however, combined with the threat of Kovačec, they may feel more comfortable in pushing forward. It will also depend on how much time they have spent working on things since the Kitchee match two weeks ago that could determine how much the manager is willing to vary strategies, especially so early into his tenure.


(image: Ulsan Hyundai facebook)

How do you see it playing out?

Like the Kitchee game, I am concerned this game has come too soon for Ulsan. They have bought well and I will be surprised if they are not competing for progression to the knockout rounds eventually, but I think Kashima Antlers are group favourites for a reason and will not fear the threat Ulsan will pose here, especially on their own turf.

Predicted Score: Kashima Antlers 2-1 Ulsan Hyundai

And then it was Matt’s turn to ask questions about Kashima Antlers…..

Many are interested to see how Kwoun Sun-tae gets on in the J League, having moved to Kashima Antlers last month after years of being the standout keeper in the Korean leagues. How has his acquisition been received amongst Antlers fans and can we expect to see him start?

He’s been well received, even if there is a feeling of “the rich getting richer” about it. Kashima have a perfectly serviceable goalkeeper in Hitoshi Sogahata, a club icon that has played nearly 500 games for the club. But, he turns 38 this summer and Kashima have actually been trying to find his replacement for a few years now. The fact that they’ve brought in a goalkeeper of the stature of Kwoun Sun-tae is a pretty strong signal that Kashima aren’t messing around here. Will he start? He came in quite late in the off-season, so one wonders whether he’s had enough time to get used to his new surroundings, his new defenders, a new system etc. Personally, I’m not sure he’ll start again Ulsan, but it won’t be too long before he is the  #1 in Kashima.

Kashima have had a very fixture heavy end to last season, with the league, Emperor’s Cup and an unforgettable performance against Real Madrid in the Club World Cup final. Do you think the team has had enough time to recuperate ahead of this campaign and could it affect them detrimentally?

I don’t think that will be an issue for Antlers. It’s true they went deep in all their competitions but they should have had enough time to recuperate & refocus. They’ve also replenished their squad with some excellent signings that should give a fresh impetus to them. Leo Silva from Albirex Niigata will be an excellent addition – an outstanding midfielder for Albirex, this is the chance that Silva has been waiting for and deserves. He’s an all round midfielder that doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses in his game. Pedro Junior from Vissel Kobe is another Brazilian that had a great impact for his former club, and with him, Mu Kanazaki & Yuma Suzuki as forwards, it will give Kashima boss Masatada Ishii room for rotation.

One thing that Kashima will have to deal with is loss of midfielder Gaku Shibasaki. Small in stature, but big on skill, he came to prominence in the Club World Cup final when he scored two against Real Madrid. He had been on European teams’ radars for a while, although it was a surprise that he signed for Spanish second division side Tenerife. (There are reports now that he is already homesick and wants to come back – maybe disappointed with the fact a move to Las Palmas in La Liga (top division) didn’t materialize. The move to Tenerife, while probably good for his development, did feel a bit rushed at the time). His loss creates a creativity vacuum in the middle of the park, and it is one that Kashima will have to address – either with a like for like replacement or tactical switch.

It’s recently been announced that this year will see a significant increase in J League prize money, with winning the league looking to be over four times as financially beneficial than Asia’s premier competition. Do you think this will have an affect on how Kashima and other J League teams approach the Champions League this year?

This argument – Japanese clubs have underachieved before this new prize money was offered in the J.League, so why would they take any more notice of the ACL as opposed to the riches on offer domestically? – is one that I’m particularly fearful of. It is a mild source of embarrassment that Japanese teams don’t do well in continental competition –  the last Japanese side to win it was back in 2008 when Gamba Osaka won it – and I would hope that Kashima’s performance in the World Club Cup would inspire other J.League clubs to try and compete at the highest level – especially as the Club World Cup won’t be played in Japan this/next year and so the J.League winners won’t be guaranteed entry, the only way to get in will be winning the ACL. It could be that some of the clubs will prioritize domestic honours over continental chances, but I sincerely hope that isn’t the case.

Who should Ulsan be most wary of when these two sides meet?

Mu Kanazaki was absolutely superb in Kashima’s title run, he scored the two goals against Urawa that gave Kashima the J.League crown, and continued it into the FIFA Club World Cup. He’s feisty, full of effort and he isn’t afraid to let his teammates or his manager know when he feels they haven’t given enough or when he senses they’ve done something wrong. As a player, he plays on the last man most of the time and he’s quick enough (but not searing) to give defenders pause for thought. As all good strikers are, he is a predator in the area and more often than not makes the keeper work. The aforementioned Pedro Junior, if he plays, will also be a handful – he’s big, physical & fast. Another player to watch out for, and one that might not be so well known outside of Japan, is attacking midfielder Shoma Doi.


(image: Kashima Antlers official website)

He has been an underappreciated part of Antlers for the last four years or so, popping up mostly just behind the front man or on the left hand side. He is a good bet for 7-8 goals per season and if teams focus too much on stopping the men up top, Doi exploits the space that that strategy affords him.

Match predictions?

I think Kashima are Japan’s best team, and if they lost if would look very bad for Japan’s ACL aspirations. I think the footballing public here are ready for an ACL challenge, and I believe that it would be in Japan’s best footballing interests to give it a go. With this in mind, I’ll go for a Kashima win by a score of 3-1.

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