Soccer-Familiar foes Kawasaki challenge Asian champions Ulsan

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Ulsan Hyundai face familiar foes on Tuesday when the reigning Asian Champions League title holders take on J-League leaders Kawasaki Frontale, looking to move a step closer to successfully defending their continental crown.

No club has managed to win back-to-back titles since Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad completed the feat in 2005, following up their win over South Korea's Seongnam Ilhwa the previous season with success against Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates.

But 16 years later and with Ulsan flying high at home under new coach Hong Myung-bo, the South Koreans go into their meeting in Ulsan with the reigning Japanese champions in a confident mood.

Ulsan won the title last year in a coronavirus-affected competition played in Doha, defeating Iran's Persepolis in the final as the trophy returned to South Korea for the sixth time in 15 years.

That title win was a belated success for Kim Do-hoon, who stepped down from the helm of the team after a series of near-misses in domestic competition.

His replacement is an icon of South Korean football.

As player, Hong led the country to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup and was head coach of the Olympic team when South Korea won the bronze medal in London in 2012.

The 52-year-old former defender has had a positive impact on Ulsan, turning them from the K-League's nearly men to a team that leads rivals Jeonbuk Motors by four points in the standings.

In the Asian Champions League, Hong steered his side serenely through the group phase and now Ulsan face the challenge of a Kawasaki side with their own ambitions of a first continental title.

"I came to Ulsan because I want to win titles," the club's Georgian midfielder Valeri Qazaishvili told the Asian Football Confederation's official website.

"They are the defending champions, so they know how to win this competition. So I hope I can help the team achieve it again."

Ulsan and Kawasaki have met on four occasions in recent seasons, while Japanese and Korean clubs have dominated the competition, with 10 of the last 15 editions won by outfits from one country or the other.

This week's meeting is one of three in the Round of 16 to feature match-ups between clubs from the two countries, with Cerezo Osaka meeting Pohang Steelers and Nagoya Grampus taking on Daegu FC.

COVID-19 concerns have forced organisers to alter the format of this year's competition, with matches in the knockout phase being played on a single-leg basis rather than as home-and-away clashes.

Other fixtures see two-time champions Jeonbuk Motors facing Thailand's BG Pathum United while in the west Persepolis, runners-up in 2018 and 2020, take on newcomers Istiklol from Tajikistan.

Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal, who won the title in 2019, face Iranian side Esteghlal while their compatriots Al Nassr meet Tractor FC, also from Iran.

The remaining last 16 fixture is an all-United Arab Emirates affair as Sharjah play Al Wahda.

(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by William Mallard)

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