Kitchee hope to catch Ulsan Hyundai cold as they look to reach Champions League

Hong Kong side hoping the South Koreans – still in pre-season – are not as prepared for one-off qualifier

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 10:51pm

Kitchee are hoping to catch Ulsan Hyundai cold in wintry South Korea on Tuesday night as they look to reach the group stage of the AFC Champions League for the first time.

Last year’s Hong Kong Premier League runners-up are 27 games into the new season while the K League does not start for another month.

And after a thrilling, last-kick-of-the-ball 3-2 win at Hong Kong Stadium over Vietnam’s Hanoi FC in the last qualifying round, Kitchee captain Lo Kwan-yee is hoping superior fitness and match sharpness will tell in the one-off game in Ulsan, where the temperature is expected to be near freezing.

“We managed to defeat a respectable Hanoi side and will try to go one step further by beating Ulsan and earning a spot in group stage,” Lo told the Hong Kong Football Association’s website.

“Most of the K-League sides are still in their pre-season training and in terms of overall form, maybe we will have a slight advantage.

“But they’re a very quick side and like to press a lot, which should present us with a tough challenge.

“In addition, playing in freezing conditions is also something that we will need to adapt to as quickly as possible.”

Ulsan were not expecting to be in the competition after finishing fourth in the K League last season but were elevated after Jeonbuk Hyundai were kicked out over a match-fixing scandal. But Ulsan were Asian champions as recently as 2012 and will expect to see off Kitchee with little trouble.

Kitchee warmed up against Champions League opposition in the Lunar New Year cup, beating Muangthong United of Thailand on penalties after a 1-1 draw, though they went on to lose 1-0 to New Zealand’s Auckland City in the final. They will likely still be without key striker Alex Akande, who hasn’t played since picking up a knock against Hanoi.

Centre-back Helio Goncalves will likely be a busy man but insisted Kitchee weren’t travelling to Korea just to defend.

“We have never faced them before but we know Korean teams are generally very fast and strong,” said the Brazilian.

“Despite coming up short in the recent Lunar New Year Cup, I think the side has been playing quite well. We know we are coming up a good side in the play-offs, we know we will be under pressure and we are likely going to start the game playing more defensive-minded.

“But that does not take away from the fact that we are going there to try to come up with a victory.”

If Kitchee qualify they will join HK champions Eastern in the group stages. Kashima Antlers of Japan, Muangthong and either China’s Shanghai Shenhua or Australia’s Brisbane Roar will be the other teams in their group.

Kitchee have veteran former South Korea international defender Kim Dong-jin in their squad and he gave his teammates the lowdown on what to expect.

“Ulsan Hyundai has gone through a lot of changes in the off-season, from the head coach to the players,” he said on Kitchee’s Facebook page.

“Adding to the fact that it is still pre-season in K-League, therefore maybe the players are still adapting to one another. For Kitchee, is in the middle of its domestic season, maybe this will be a slight advantage for us.

“Having said that, they’re still one of the top clubs in K-League and we can ill-afford to take them lightly. Players such as number 10 Lee Jong Ho and Croatian striker Ivan Kovacec are players that we really need to pay close attention to.”