ACL Preview: Ulsan v Western Sydney Wanderers
Played: 1, Wins: Ulsan 1, Wanderers 0 Draws: 0
Wanderers 1-3 Ulsan, 26 February 2014
Past five matches (in all competitions):
Western Sydney Wanderers will have to beware the wounded animal in Group H when they travel to take on Ulsan on Tuesday. The K-League club lead Group H but have won just once in their past six matches in all competitions. Cho Min-Kook's Ulsan side will wrap up a spot in the AFC Champions League's (ACL) Round of 16 with a win against Western Sydney and will be desperate to turn their form around.
Ulsan started the season with six games unbeaten, including their opening three ACL matches, but have plummeted down the K-League table to fifth since, losing their past two fixtures 1-0 to Seongnam and Jeonbuk Motors respectively. Cho's men lost at Guizhou Renhe in the last ACL matchday to top Group H with seven points, while the Wanderers failed away to Kawasaki Frontale to be joined by the Japanese club on six - although Western Sydney sit second on goals scored.
Since that defeat, however, Western Sydney have claimed a draw against recently-crowned A-League premiers Brisbane Roar and came from behind to trump Melbourne Heart 3-2 on Saturday. Wanderers head coach Tony Popovic will be hoping for at least a draw in South Korea to set his team up for the final matchday where they will host bottom club Guizhou.
The big issue:
Ulsan – The K-League runners-up from 2013 have scored 16 goals in all competitions so far this season but have not hit the back of the net since April 1. Can Ulsan test Wanderers' defence enough to win on Tuesday? Towering striker Kim Shin-Wook has scored seven of those goals but Cho needs his other attackers to start producing more often in the final third. Brazilian forward Rafinha scored 12 goals in all competitions last year but has just two this campaign.
Wanderers – Popovic's side won the 2012/13 A-League premiership based on a water-tight defence. This season Western Sydney have conceded a little over a goal per game on average and have not kept a clean sheet in four matches. With a draw arguably enough for the Wanderers in South Korea, a classic backs-to-the-wall performance could be ideal for the Parramatta-based club.
The game breaker: Ante Covic
If the Wanderers are to hold on defensively against Ulsan, their veteran goalkeeper will have to be on top of his game. On Saturday in Melbourne, Covic denied Heart striker Harry Kewell from point-blank range with a brilliant save as the home side dominated, keeping Western Sydney in the match before Youssouf Hersi sparked the visitors' comeback.
Prediction: Ulsan 1-1 Wanderers
Western Sydney's win against Heart clinched second spot for the Wanderers and means Popovic can fully focus on his team's final two ACL matches, knowing they do not have to play an A-League final in between. Expect the likes of Nikolai Topor-Stanley (one appearance), star striker Tomi Juric and mercurial winger Hersi (both two) to be utilised against Ulsan and Guizhou with a spot in the Round of 16 on the line.
Ulsan, however, should be confident coming up against the Wanderers, having accounted for them 3-1 at Pirtek Stadium on the opening matchday. Lead striker Kim will seriously test Western Sydney's defence with his height, while Ko Chang-Hyeon will be dangerous bursting forward from midfield. Both scored in that win in February. But Ulsan's form does indicate Popovic's men will have a chance.