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Jeonbuk Motors vs Jeonnam Dragons Preview

(via dragons.co.kr)

League leaders Jeonbuk Motors look for revenge to fend off a surging Jeonnam Dragons in the second Jeollanam-do derby this season. 

This Sunday's battle between 1st and 4th has huge implications not only for the teams involved, but the entire landscape of K-League Classic. Seemingly impenetrable a month ago, Jeonbuk is suddenly very very human. Winners of a meager one in their last five, their hold on the league lead has slipped to 7 points and could shrink even further should the Dragons continue their recent run of form. Coming in winners of four of their last five Jeonnam is now in a position to cement themselves as a threat at the top of the table. While closing the 10 point lead Jeonbuk currently holds over them may be a big ask, they can certainly put themselves in fantastic position to hang on to a top four spot and play Champions League football next season.

The consistently inconsistent Dragons have managed to stabilize the ship following the lead and fantastic form of Mislav Oršić. His off the ball movement, willingness to defend, intelligent decisions on the ball, and clinical finishing of late has transformed the Dragons offense and has given opposition a new element to consider defensively. Before Oršić's play was demanding regular starts, and during Lee Jong-ho's absence, the Dragons offensive was amazingly one dimensional with the "lob it to Stevo" strategy in full effect. The combination of Lee Jong-ho returning and Oršić's magnificent play has resulted in more creativity from the midfield and a more direct approach. Instead of the heat map looking like highlighter streaks down the sidelines, the Dragons are now spreading the ball much more efficiently throughout the entirety of the offensive zone. The results of this much improved offensive strategy can be seen in the win column of the past month.

On the other side, Jeonbuk may be showing the results of being in three competitions as the K-League schedule increases to regular double game weeks. The Wednesday/Saturday grind is enough for most teams, but add in the FA Cup and ACL Champions League (where Jeonbuk is the K-League's last hope) and you're sure to get some tired legs. JBFC manager Choi Kang-hee tried to rest the legs of Edu, Lee Jae-sung, and Leonardo during their Wednesday night FA Cup match against Pohang, but eventually brought them all on as early second half subs in a failed attempt to win the game. Having the Golden Boot leader Edu and 7 goal scorer Leonardo a bit tired is certainly something that'll play well into the Dragons hands if indeed fatigue is a factor for them.

However, Noh Sang-rae didn't exactly turn over his entire roster for the FA Cup even though the Dragons were playing the much weaker K-League Challenge side Chungju. As I had hoped in the match preview, Jeon Hyeon-chul did indeed get a runout and played extremely well scoring two goals, but there were a lot of regulars in the starting 11. They were eventually subbed, but Oršić and Lee Jong-ho each went over 75 minutes and Ahn Yong-woo went the full 90. Here's a look at the full lineup from Wednesday.
In a match that ended 4-1 and was never overly close, that's a long time to leave in regulars with such a crucial weekend fixture coming up. With a 2-1 lead at the half, I was hoping to see Leandro Lima replace Lee Jong-ho to start the second, not in the 76th minute. It's also slightly puzzling that Noh Sang-rae absolutely refuses to give any other goalkeeper a look in net. If a Wednesday match against a lower division opponent isn't the time to see what Kim Min-sik can offer, I don't know what is. While Kim Byung-ji's been playing well enough of late, never playing a backup keeper is ensuring any injury or poor form from the 45 year old stalwart will result in more than a slight pang of panic.

However, the team that Noh trotted out Wednesday got the result they needed and the Dragons march on in the FA Cup. I've said many times that's where their focus should be this season, so I shouldn't complain much about the A-team being given minutes to ensure victory. The worry comes from remembering the 3-0 shellacking FC Seoul put on Jeonnam days after their FA Cup win on May 13th.  Riding high after their shock PK win over Suwon wasn't enough to overcome the physical fatigue the Dragons obviously felt and they were punished for it. Luckily this time Jeonbuk will also be coming into the match having played an intense game Wednesday night.

Maybe it's just the optimist in me, but Jeonnam actually could win this game. The key for them is going to be the first 15-20 minutes of each half. If they're able to storm out of the gate and take an early lead it'll immediately put the crowd on their heels. The Motors haven't been playing up to their abilities lately and the sting of dropping out of the FA Cup is still fresh enough that an early goal could lead to some frustration for the Mad Green Boys and keep em relatively quiet. It's a somewhat likely scenario when taking into account that the Motors haven't scored a goal in the first 15 all season while Jeonnam has scored three in the same timeframe.

The opening minutes of the second half are a much different story for the ol greenies. They've scored six goals in the 45'-60' and nine in the 60'-75', resulting in 60% of their season total coming in the first 30 minutes of the second half. Defending their brains out during this stretch will be vital for the Dragons, and could be much easier if they're already playing with a lead. Allowing a tying goal during Jeonbuk's peak minutes will be much less soul crushing than a go-ahead goal in the same timeframe. This is mainly because the Dragons aren't exactly inept in the second half themselves. Six of their 21 goals this season have come in the last 15 minutes of the game and a goal in the dying minutes of this match could well prove to be the game winner. Add in the fact that the Dragons have only held one clean sheet in nine through all competitions and the importance of an early goal escalates substantially.

Though I do believe (and obviously hope) the Dragons could win this game, I think we're looking at a 2-2 tie that will keep each team right where they are in the table. However, even a tie could have significant effects on the table if Suwon is able to win this weekend's Super Match. That combination would result in a 5 point difference between the top two teams and the Dragons could hold their heads high with a road draw against their bitter rivals putting the league title into slightly murkier waters.

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