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Who Will Sit On The Throne Of Asia?


The scene is set for one final chapter. Persepolis and Ulsan Hyundai will square off to claim the throne of Asian football in the AFC Champions League final.

By: Li Yixin, Yonghun Lee

Football is a results business. Kim Do-Hoon knows that better than anyone – this will be his final match as Ulsan head coach. Shoulders sagging with the responsibility of taking Ulsan within touching distance of the domestic K-League 1 title, only for them to lose it at the last. Not once but twice.

But they do come into the AFC Champions League final with history on their side. Ulsan have won the competition once before in 2012. More importantly, though, they have beaten West Asian opposition (where rivals Persepolis hail from) in each of their seven encounters in the competition.

Ulsan’s 100% Record Against West Asian Opposition:

September 13, 2006Al-Shabab (H)6-0QF
September 20, 2006Al-Shabab (A)1-0QF
September 19, 2012Al-Hilal (H)1-0QF
October 3, 2012Al-Hilal (A)4-0QF
October 24, 2012Bunyodkor (A)3-1SF
October 31, 2012Bunyodkor (H)2-0SF
November 10, 2012Al-Ahli (H)3-0Final

It’s the exact opposite story for Persepolis. They have won the Persian Gulf Pro League title in four consecutive seasons. They are the most successful club in Iran. But while they are dominant domestically, they have not won on the Asian stage – they were so close in 2018, but lost the two-legged final to Japanese side, Kashima Antlers. This will be the fourth AFC Champions League final for the Irani side, and none of those Persepolis teams have yet tasted victory. No other country has reached the final more than once without winning the competition.

Iran’s Frustration In The Final:

November 7, 2007SepahanUrawa Red Diamonds (H)1-1
November 14, 2007SepahanUrawa Red Diamonds (A)0-2
November 13, 2010Zob AhanSeongnam FC (A)1-3
November 3, 2018PersepolisKashima Antlers (A)0-2
November 10, 2018PersepolisKashima Antlers (H)0-0

Ulsan’s Red Hot Attack:

Ulsan are the most in-form team in the AFC Champions League this season. They have won eight consecutive matches scoring more than a once in each of these, a record for the club.

Ulsan’s Historic Form:

November 21, 2020Shanghai Shenhua3-1Group
November 24, 2020Perth Glory2-1Group
November 27, 2020Perth Glory2-0Group
November 30, 2020FC Tokyo2-1Group
December 3, 2020Shanghai Shenhua4-1Group
December 6, 2020Melbourne Victory3-0R16
December 10, 2020Beijing Sinobo Guan2-0QF
December 13, 2020Vissel Kobe2-1SF

Ulsan have two forwards doing the damage up top. Junior Negrao and Bjorn Johnsen have five goals each. No other Persepolis player has scored more than four.

Soon to be 34-year-old forward Junior, known as the Goalscoring Officer by his fans, has had three hugely successful seasons for Ulsan in K-League 1. He has scored 67 goals in the league for Ulsan since he joined the club in 2018, at least 22 goals more than any other player in the period. He’s also the top scorer in 2020 with 26 goals.

Strike partner, Bjorn Johnsen, has had a mixed season. It took him some time to adjust to life in Ulsan after joining the club in 2020, and he’s only mustered five goals in 18 appearances in K-League 1. But in the AFC Champions League, he’s been on song, scoring five goals in eight appearances so far, averaging a goal every 87 minutes. He is sharing the playing time and goalscoring burden with Juinor Negrao in the competition.

Another player who’s struggled domestically, but shone in the cup competition is Yun Bit-Garam. The creative midfielder has been involved in just four goals (4 goals) in his 24 appearances this season in K-League 1, but involved in seven goals (4 goals & 3 assists) in his seven appearances in AFC Champions League. He has created 2.9 chances per game, more than any other player in the competition.

Overall, Ulsan will look to rely on their attacking firepower in the final. Their underlying numbers this season in the AFC Champions League suggest that they’ve been one of the most potent sides going forwards.

Persepolis: Patient and Solid

Despite only getting a point from their first two group stage games, the Iranian Persian Gulf Pro League Champions, Persepolis, sealed their spot for the AFC Champions League 2020 final after a magnificent run since the tournament resumed in September.

Persepolis are comfortable in possession and happy to slowly build attacks from the back. They’ve taken 6,286 ball touches in total throughout the competition, with only opponents Ulsan taking more (6,486).

Key to this patient build up are Persepolis’ central defenders: Shojae Khalilzadeh, even though he’s not playing with the club anymore, has racked up the most passes in the competition, and Hossein Kanaani is also heavily involved. Ahmad Noorollahi, the defensive midfielder, is also a crucial part of their system as he receives the ball from the central defenders most often, before distributing the ball forwards. He has also made more interceptions than any player for the team – 16.

The Iranian side are very patient in attack. To date, Persepolis have needed just shy of 45 passes to generate a shot on goal. Among all the teams who made the knockout stages, only Al-Taawon (47.3) have needed more, and it’s almost 10 more than their opponent in the final – Ulsan (34.6).

That’s not to say that this possession isn’t dangerous. Persepolis have averaged 21.2 touches in the opposition box per game, ranked second among West Asia teams. In fact, all of their 12 goals scored this campaign have come from inside the penalty area.

Key Personnel Missing:

Persepolis will be without key players for this clash, however. Defender Shoja Khalilzadeh, who scored twice and didn’t miss a minute for Persepolis this competition, has left the team to join Qatar side Al-Rayyan SC after Persepolis’ semi-final.

Talisman Issa Ale Kasir, who scored 33.3% (4/12) of their AFC Champions League goals will remain suspended for the final due to previous racist behaviour against Pakhtakor of Uzbekistan.

They will also be without Ehsan Pahlevan, who received two yellow cards in extra time against Al-Nssar in the last game. Pahlevan has created 11 chances in the competition so far, only one Persepolis player has created more (Bashar Resan, 12).

Solid Defence:

Persepolis are a team who defend well. Over the course of their four-year domestic dominance, when they won four consecutive league titles, they conceded an average of 0.5 goals a game.

Similarly, Persepolis ’keeper Hamed Lak is enjoying a fantastic season in the continental competition. He has the highest save percentage (88.9%) and also the highest save percentage in the box (83.3%) among the shot shoppers to have made at least 10 saves this campaign.

Lak, and his defenders in front of him, will need to be at their best to stop the attacking firepower of Ulsan in the final this weekend.

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