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Mental shift key to Ulsan Hyundai’s AFC Champions League run, says clinical Júnior

Doha: Júnior Negrão credited a shift in mentality as a key reason for Ulsan Hyundai’s 2020 AFC Champions League success, after the Brazilian scored both goals in their quarter-final win over Beijing FC on Thursday.

Scoring two or more goals on every occasion, the Korean outfit have now won seven matches in a row since arriving in Qatar and with Júnior one of three players in the side to have compiled a personal tally of four goals in the tournament.

Thursday’s test was their biggest yet. They were up against a Beijing side who themselves hadn’t lost a match in the competition, but Ulsan emerged with their record intact, and are now just two wins away from a second AFC Champions League title.

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For good reason, they are thoroughly enjoying their football, but it was a different story just a month ago, when Ulsan had just lost the Korean FA Cup final to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, a result which came shortly after Kim Do-hoon’s side had also squandered a golden opportunity to win the K League.

Leaving those competitions empty handed led to questions in some quarters about the team’s mentality, but Júnior believes it is now a strength rather than a weakness.

Quarter-final: Ulsan Hyundai FC 2-0 Beijing FC

“We have shown, here in the ACL, a different side to us,” said the 33-year-old.

“We learned from our mistakes in the league and tried not to repeat them. We moved on and forgot what happened in Korea and started again here with a different and stronger mentality, that is why we keep winning and we want to go all the way to the final."

Júnior was crucial to Ulsan’s win against Beijing. He won, then converted the penalty kick which put them ahead in the 21st minute, then scored a brilliant second with a rasping 30-yard drive just before half-time, confirming himself as the only logical winner of the Player of the Match award.

The journeyman striker claimed that honour in a game where Beijing featured Renato Augusto and Fernando – Brazilian internationals with more impressive résumés than his own – fulfilling his earlier goal of performing well in the company of his illustrious countrymen.

“They are amazing national team players and when you play against them you know you are playing in a high level,” said Júnior, who was born in Bahia state and has played senior football for 13 different Brazilian clubs.

“When you win, and also get MVP at this level, it shows you can compete at the highest level. I am happy with it, but of course the most important thing is always winning, not scoring or being MVP.

"I am very proud of my teammates. Of course, I’m happy to score twice but it was amazing teamwork. We showed how strong we are and played as a team.”

In a 2020 season in which Júnior has already earned the personal accolade of the K League Golden Boot and broken the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his 15-year-long career, the only thing missing is team success.

He and Ulsan will have the chance to go from K League nearly-men to Asian champions, starting with Sunday’s semi-final against Japan's Vissel Kobe.

“This type of result and performance is always good motivation,” said Júnior. “Now we have another important match to look forward to, we need to rest, recover and go again.”

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