Ulsan Hyundai FC made a statement with their commanding 3-1 win over Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua FC in their AFC Champions League East Zone matchup on Saturday at the Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar.
Ulsan put on a show to defeat a Shanghai side that had scraped past Perth Glory 2-1 in their opener on Wednesday and proved their title credentials despite missing key starters in the Group F clash.
The Korean FA Cup finalists were without their top goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who had tested positive for the virus during the international break, along with Kim Tae-hwan, Jung Seung-hyun and Won Du-jae who are also in isolation after the outbreak in South Korea's training camp in Austria.
Midfielder Yoon Bit-garam opened the scoring in the 19th minute from a rebound before placing a magnificent effort into the top corner to double Ulsan's lead in the 41st minute. Centre-back Kim Kee-hee made it 3-0 in the second half before Shenhua scored a late consolation in the 89th minute.
It was thanks to a misfiring K League 1 top scorer Junior Negrao and their shot-stopper Li Shuai that Shanghai avoided further damages. As for Ulsan, the return of their national team stars are only going to bolster not just their squad, but also their hopes of a first Champions League title since 2012.
Beijing in the driver's seat after two wins
Beijing were the only Chinese club to play in the tournament before the break when they defeated Thai League 1 champions Chiangrai United 1-0 more than nine months ago. They hit the ground running again in the restart with another hard-fought win over Seoul in Group E.
Seasoned manager Bruno Genesio was without star forward Cedric Bakambu, who was excluded from their Champions League squad after international duty with Congo. But their Brazilian imports helped deliver the win for the French coach in their return to play.
Naturalised forward Alan Carvalho stole possession from Kim Won-sik and helped Brazilian Fernando open the scoring for the CSL side in the eighth minute. Alan could have doubled the lead in the 27th minute, but goalkeeper Yang Han-been matched the forward's effort with a save.
Alan was not denied at the hour-mark when he found the back of the net with a shot from the edge of the box. The South Koreans reduced the deficit from the penalty spot as Park Chu-young converted after a dubious Kim Min-jae handball six minutes later, but the three points ultimately went to Beijing.
They lead the group with six points from two games as Seoul and Melbourne Victory are both on three points. Chiangrai remain without points after two losses. Beijing will now face Melbourne Victory on Tuesday while Seoul takes on Chiangrai United.
Seoul show resolve in the face of adversity
It has been a daunting year on and off the field for Seoul who have seen disruptions due to the pandemic, four different managers at the helm, a close escape from relegation, and the tragic loss of defender Kim Nam-chun who died last month.
Lee Won-jun took charge as the caretaker only a week ago after they finished ninth in the 12-team K League with only four points clear of safety. The new manager had almost half of his squad unavailable for Saturday's tie including key players Ju Se-jong and Yoon Jong-gyu.
Despite the difficulties and conceding early, Seoul controlled large portions of the game against Beijing. Han Chan-hee in particular was a potent threat going close with two efforts late in the first half before producing a stunning save off Beijing custodian Hou Sen four minutes into the second.
The South Koreans could even have nicked a point near the end of the match. This display with a depleted squad, despite no points to show for it, can still give the team some confidence for the rest of the tournament in Qatar.