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Super sub Johnsen aiming to push Ulsan Hyundai FC over AFC Champions League finish line

Doha: Ulsan Hyundai FC have reached the AFC Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since winning the tournament in 2012, and the emergence of ‘super sub’ striker Bjørn Johnsen may yet prove crucial to their hopes of repeating that achievement.

The New York-born Norwegian international has been the ace in head coach Kim Do-hoon’s pack in the last two matches, scoring twice as a substitute against Shanghai Shenhua in their final group stage fixture, then repeating the dose to eliminate Melbourne Victory in the Round of 16.

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With experience in Holland, Portugal, Scotland and Bulgaria, Johnsen has largely been a starter throughout his club career, but with teammate Júnior Negrao scoring at a rate of nearly a goal per game in a prolific league campaign, patience has been required since he joined Ulsan at the start of the year.

Fresh from his second successive Player of the Match performance in Doha, Johnsen admitted he would prefer to start more games, but said he is happy to fulfil whatever assignment he is handed.

“Obviously I want to be influential for the team,” said the 29-year-old “But at the moment, whatever the coach asks me to do, I will do."

Round of 16: Ulsan Hyundai FC 3-0 Melbourne Victory

“If he wants me to come on at the end like this and push the team over the finish line, then I will do that. Obviously, I want to start every game and I have the physical power to do it, so I hope that I’m showing that I’m pushing for the starting 11.

“At a tournament like this with so many games, it’s not possible to play every game and we have to also understand who is ready to play the next game. Thinking of that, and how Junior has been playing, we hope that me and Junior, (Kim) In-sung (pictured below) and everyone else can continue to score goals.”

But starting the game on the bench can have its advantages.

Strong favourites against Melbourne last time out, Ulsan failed to break through in the first half as some fine saves from goalkeeper Max Crocombe, coupled with the Australian side’s well organised defence, saw the two sides deadlocked at half-time.

Kim turned to Johnsen at half-time, and the 16-cap Norwegian national team forward did the rest, opening the scoring in the 65th minute before putting the game beyond doubt four minutes from time as the K League runners-up won 3-0 to stretch their winning streak in the competition to six.

“Sitting on the bench and watching the game gives you a little bit better aspect of what’s going on,” said Johnsen, the son of a Norwegian mother and an American father.

“The field was not as good as the first couple of days in the tournament, so (Kim) saw that (Melbourne Victory) were being pressured when we gave the long ball or more direct play.

“I felt confident, seeing that in the first half they had problems, that I could be key to maybe getting a flick on, or a touch in behind, or even a goal myself. It helps when the other players feel confident as well.

“All of us feel good. We’re all playing very hard in training to show that we can play, and whatever is asked of us, we want to enjoy this tournament, and hopefully win again.”

A veteran of UEFA Europa League football with AZ, Rosenborg and Litex, Johnsen's first taste of the Asian continental game has come in the most unique of seasons, with all but one of his appearances in the competition coming in the centralised hub format in Qatar.

The other match was at home to FC Tokyo in February, meaning he is yet to experience an AFC Champions League away day, and he admits there has been a lot to get used to in one of the least predictable periods of football in living memory.

“It’s always special to play in tournaments like this, or the Europa League or qualifiers for the World Cup,” he explained.

“But it’s totally different, in this kind of moment, with the coronavirus and not being able to travel to Tokyo or Shanghai or experience the fans in any other countries, (but) thank you for the AFC that we have the tournament here, it’s been a great experience to play in Doha.

“Football wise, it’s totally different – football in Asia is totally different. You have to get used to it. It’s more spaces, more man to man, different formations, getting used to coming off the bench and we have five substitutions now.

“Everything has changed, and it’s a lot to get used to but I’m very proud to play in the AFC Champions League and I’m happy to score my first goals. I just want to push on now.”

With three wins separating Ulsan from their second AFC Champions League title, Johnsen’s unusual first year in Asian football could yet end with the biggest prize of them all.

They'll discover their quarter-final opponents on Tuesday, with the match to be held at Al Janoub Stadium on Thursday.

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