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2020 AFC Champions League Semi-Final (East): 5 Things To Look Out For

Doha: Korea Republic's Ulsan Hyundai FC and Japan's Vissel Kobe will square off in the 2020 AFC Champions League (East) semi-final on Sunday for the right to face the Islamic Republic of Iran's Persepolis FC in the final on December 19. 

The match at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium will mark the first time the sides have met in what is Ulsan's first semi-final appearance since winning the competition in 2012. Vissel, meanwhile, have made the final four at the first time of asking in an excellent debut AFC Champions League campaign

As the teams continue their quest to become kings of the Continent, has selected five things to look out for ahead of the match.

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1. The race to catch Hamdallah

Al Nassr striker Abderrazak Hamdallah was in fine form throughout the 2020 AFC Champions League (West) campaign and he leads the way in the competition's scoring charts with seven goals. However, with the Saudi side exiting at the semi-final stage, there is still a chance the prolific Moroccan could be caught.

The most likely contender to do so would be Ulsan striker Junior Negrao, whose double against Beijing FC in the 2-0 quarter-final win took the Brazilian to four goals. Given his record of scoring just short of a goal a game in Korea Republic's domestic season, the 33-year is perfectly capable of notching several more, particularly if his side reach the final.

A couple of Negrao's teammates also sit on four goals, with Bjorn Johnsen and Yoon Bit-garam netting a pair of braces each en route to the semi-final. Given the former tends to be used as an impact substitute and the latter plays further back, racking up three goals in two games may be a tall order although the target is certainly not insurmountable.

For Vissel, Kyogo Furuhashi is out in front on three goals after his quarter-final strike against Suwon Samsung Bluewings although it would take an effort of mammoth proportions to draw level, or surpass, Hamdallah. As it stands, the Al Nassr man is in a strong position but with Ulsan, in particular, amongst the goals there may still be several players eyeing the Top Scorer accolade.

2. Iniesta's injury concerns

The presence of Andres Iniesta in the 2020 AFC Champions League has added undoubted further quality and excitement to the competition, and the Spaniard has not disappointed, weighing in with both goals and assists in Vissel's run to the semi-final.

However, with his side two up against Shanghai SIPG in the Round of 16, the former Barcelona man was withdrawn holding his right quad and subsequently was left on the bench for the quarter-final against Suwon. Iniesta was brought on deep into extra-time, presumably for his penalty-taking expertise, and duly delivered the goods on that front.

But the signs were worrying in the immediate aftermath to his spot-kick as the 2010 FIFA World Cup winner again seemed in discomfort, grimacing and clutching the same area. With little time to recover ahead of the semi-final the question is whether Iniesta will be fit enough for the starting line-up, or even a place on the bench.

There is little doubt he would be a huge loss for Vissel should he not be available yet, if he does play and further aggravates the same area, he could risk missing out on a potential final. Iniesta is aiming to become the first player to ever win both the AFC and UEFA Champions League titles, he will be desperate to get back to fitness as he targets another honour in a trophy-laden career.

3. Happy semi-final memories

Of Ulsan's class of 2012 that were crowned Continental champions just one man remains, although that player was the side's standout individual during a nine-game winning run that culminated in a 3-0 defeat of Al Ahli Saudi. So good were Lee Keun Ho's performances eight years ago, they won him the AFC Player of the Year award.

Now 35, Lee netted four times and created plenty more in the knockout rounds and his memories of his semi-final showing will be among his highlights. After falling a goal behind away at Uzbekistan's Bunyodkor, the then bleached-blonde star scored one and set up another in a 3-1 win before netting again in the return meeting as Ulsan secured a place in the final.

While Vissel are appearing in their first AFC Champions League semi-final, they too have a player who has gone all the way, and who also produced arguably his most crucial contribution in the semi-final. Trailing 5-4 on aggregate against Suwon, then Kashima Antlers man Daigo Nishi popped up with an equaliser midway through the second half before the Ibaraki side advanced 6-5.

Nishi then starred in both legs of the final against Persepolis, the waiting opponents in the 2020 showpiece event, as Kashima won Asia's biggest club competition for the first time before he departed to join Vissel soon after. Just two years later, the right-sided midfielder returns to the last four once more and, like Lee, will be looking for more semi-final success and ultimately a second AFC Champions League title.

4. Furuhashi's knack of scoring important goals

While Iniesta may be the name on everyone's lips when it comes to Vissel, Kyogo Furuhashi continues to shine and the forward has shown his worth and then some during his maiden Continental campaign. Three goals and an assist are the standout moments in what has been a highly impressive tournament so far.

But not only is the 25-year-old getting on the scoresheet, he is doing so at critical moments in games. A last-minute winner against Suwon back in February meant Vissel travelled to Qatar on top of the standings and he then opened the scoring in a 3-1 win over Guangzhou Evergrande that secured Round of 16 qualification after just two games.

Furuhashi saved his most important contribution so far for the quarter-finals as his cheeky Ronaldinho-esque free-kick, hit low under the wall, levelled the scores before he also held his nerve from the spot in the penalty shootout.

The Nara native's on-field relationship with Iniesta is well known in Japan and has been evident in the 2020 AFC Champions League as the pair have continually linked up well. Thursday's victory over Suwon, though, showed that he is also perfectly capable of assuming the responsibility when the Spaniard is not on the pitch.

5. Can Korea Republic return to the final?

In 17 AFC Champions League finals prior to 2020 no nation has taken part more than Korea Republic. Sides from the country have been present in a record eight editions of the showpiece event since the competition was launched in 2002-03 and five times ended up on the winning side, again a tournament high.

After Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma were defeated in the 2004 final, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were crowned Korea's first AFC Champions League winner in 2006 before the nation was represented in five successive finals between 2009 and 2013, winning three. However, not since Jeonbuk lifted the trophy for the second time in 2016 has a K League side featured in the final.

In 2017 there was no Korean presence beyond the last 16 and, while Suwon reached the semi-finals a year later, the East Asian nation disappointed once more in 2019. Both Jeonbuk and Ulsan exited in the first knockout round, meaning the three-year spell was by some way the country's worst period in the competition.

However, with Suwon's run to the quarter-finals and, particularly, Ulsan's seven-game winning surge, the K League is perhaps showing signs of returning to the fore. If Ulsan can defeat Vissel on Sunday they will become the first Korean side in four years to appear in the final as they look to end a relatively poor spell on the Continent for their country.

Poll will end on Sunday, December 13 at 18:00 (UTC+8)

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