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LEAD) K League-leading Ulsan among 4 S Korn clubs chasiAsiti

release time:2022-06-06 19:01

(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 11-12, 20-23)

SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean football leaders Ulsan Hyundai FC will be among four teams from the country to begin their pursuit of the Asian club title this week, with six matches on the horizon over the next two weeks.

The group stage at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League for the East Region, covering teams from South Korea, Japan, China, Australia and Thailand, among others, will kick off Friday. The preliminary action for the West Region, which includes clubs from the likes of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Uzbekistan, began last Thursday.

There are 10 groups of four. The 10 group winners will advance to the round of 16, along with three-best runners-up from each of the two regions.

South Koreas K League has won the most AFC club titles with 12 since the competition began in 1967. Ulsan Hyundai FC were the most recent champions in 2020, and they will make their 10th appearance this year.

Ulsan, which currently lead the K League 1, will be joined by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Daegu FC from the top league, and by Jeonnam Dragons from the second-tier K League 2.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, all group matches will be played in centralized locations, with teams playing each other twice.

Ulsan are in Group I, up against the 2021 Japanese league champions Kawasaki Frontale, Guangzhou FC from China and Johor Darul Tazim from Malaysia. All Group I matches will be in Johor Bahru in southern Malaysia from Friday to April 30.

Ulsan will open their title bid against Kawasaki, in a matchup of two current leaders in the top South Korean and Japanese leagues. Ulsan knocked off Kawasaki on penalties in the round of 16 last year, after the teams were scoreless after 120 minutes of action.

Johor will be playing every group match at their home, Sultan Ibrahim Stadium. They are the eight-time defending Malaysian Super League champions.

Guangzhou will send a team of backups, as they did in 2021. Their reserves lost all six group matches at last years AFC Champions League by a combined score of 17-1.

Ulsan head coach Hong Myung-bo said at a prematch press conference Thursday that he expects a tough match against Kawasaki.

Even though we beat them on penalties, both clubs played a great match, and we have to be prepared against Kawasaki, Hong said. We are undefeated in the K League, but this is a whole new competition. There will be a dogfight to make it out of the group stage, and well try to secure our knockout spot as quickly as possible.

Jeonbuk, the five-time defending K League 1 champions and two-time AFC winners, will face Yokohama F. Marinos of Japan, Sydney FC of Australia and Hoang Anh Gia Lai of Vietnam in Group H. Their matches will take place in Ho Chi Minh City from Saturday to May 1.

Jeonbuk, in the AFC competition for the 15th time, will renew their rivalry with Yokohama and Sydney after facing the two clubs in last years group stage. In 2021, Jeonbuk had a win and a draw versus Sydney, but lost twice to Yokohama.

Yokohama qualified for this years AFC tournament by finishing as the J1 League runners-up last year. They are in second place this season, too, and are leading the domestic league with 17 goals in 10 matches.

Daegu FC will play in Group F against Shandong Taishan of China, Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan and Lion City Sailors of Singapore. The Thai city of Buriram will be the centralized host for Group F action from Friday to April 30.

Daegu will be playing in the AFC Champions League for the third time, after getting past Buriram United on penalties in a playoff match last month.

Shandong accomplished a Chinese double last year by winning the Super League and the FA Cup titles, but they will send a reserve squad to Thailand without many of their regular players. Shandongs South Korean midfielder Son Jun-ho, a former K League 1 MVP, is unlikely to make the trip.

Lion City have some Korean connection: their head coach is Kim Do-hoon, who led Ulsan to the 2020 AFC Champions League title, and former K League 1 scoring champion Kim Shin-wook is now plying his trade for the reigning Singapore Premier League champions.

Daegu head coach Alexandre Gama, who spent seven years coaching in Thailand before taking over the South Korean club in December, said Thursday he is happy to be back in a country where hed built so many fond memories.

Id love to create happy memories with this team here, Gama said. And I hope our players enjoy competing in this tournament. It is not going to be an easy journey, but hopefully, our hard work will pay dividends.

Gama said there wont be any easy opponent in Group F, and even Shandong could be a threat.

They could be dangerous precisely because they will be bringing younger guys. Our players may let their guard down, Gama said. And their young players will be running all over the pitch and make life difficult for us.

Jeonnam became the first K League 2 club ever to qualify for the AFC tournament after capturing the FA Cup title in December. They will face Melbourne City of Australia, BG Pathum United of Thailand and United City of the Philippines in Group G. Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, will host all Group G games from Friday to April 30.

Melbourne City will make their AFC Champions League debut as the 2021 A-League champions. They are leading their domestic league this season, too.

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