Korean Tigers roar on Asian stage
© AFP

If their dominant form in this year's AFC Champions League is anything to go by, it seems that Ulsan Hyundai, known as the Tigers (Horangi), have a strong chance of reaching their maiden AFC Champions League final, although Uzbek giants Bunyodkor harbour ambitions of also breaking new ground with victory.

Kim Hogon's side travel to Tashkent for the first leg on Wednesday as the only undefeated side in the competition, having won seven and drawn two out of nine outings so far, as they sealed their second last-four appearance on the Asian scene. Even more eye-catching is the goalscoring rate of Ulsan - currently fourth on the K-League ladder - who have racked up 22 goals to become the second most prolific side on the continent, two shy of Al Ittihad.

Despite twice winning the domestic league in 1996 and 2005, plus finishing runners-up on six occasions, the Tigers have yet to get their hands on the continental trophy. The closest they came was in the 2006 edition, when they stormed into the last four only to lose out to compatriots, and eventual winners, Jeonbuk Motors, 6-4 on aggregate.

And there is added motivation, with hope that Ulsan can defend K-League pride by bringing the Champions League crown to Korea Republic for a record fourth time.

Continental momentum
Featuring for only the third time on the Asian stage, Ulsan immediately made their mark through some dynamic performances. They opened brightly with a 2-1 home win over Beijing Guoan, before drawing against FC Tokyo and Brisbane Roar respectively, to maintain pole position. They proceeded to win the section with three straight victories as Kim's charges emerged as a genuine force to be reckoned with.

Ulsan maintained their momentum in the knockout stage, edging Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol in a 3-2 thriller in the one-off Round of 16, before overpowering Saudi heavyweights Al Hilal 5-0 on aggregate to set up the semi-final showdown with Bunyodkor.

While Ulsan have impressed throughout with their strength in depth, their success this season can largely be attributed to their international core. Taking care of the job between the sticks is national team goalkeeper Kim Youngkwang, while bossing the defence is none other than Korea Republic captain Kwak Taehwi. At the pointy end of the pitch, Lee Keunho and Kim Shinwook, both of whom figured in the recent 1-0 qualifying loss to Iran for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, form one of the tournament's most formidable attacking line-ups.

In order to further enhance their cutting edge, Ulsan secured Rafinha's move on loan from Gamba Osaka prior to the quarter-finals. And the Brazilian striker made an immediate impact, scoring three times over two legs as they saw off Al Hilal.

Fitness concerns
With their progress, Ulsan have edged the likes of Suwon Bluewings and Jeonbuk Motors to become the biggest source of talent to the national team. However, their stars may become victims of their own success, challenged to their physical limits by their duties for both club and country.

Ulsan finished only sixth in the K-League's regular season, while they have lost recently to both Jeonbuk and Pohang Steelers in the play-offs to enter the Bunyodkor game in modest form.

"I have to admit that we have some problem physically due to such a hectic schedule of matches in both the domestic and continental stage," said Kim, formerly coach of Korea Republic.

With a maiden final place at stake, though, Kim voiced determination to come away with a historic triumph. "Our strategy now is to focus on the Asian Champions League. Although we're having a difficult time with the players going through international duties, we'll prepare well enough to get a good result."