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Jeonnam Dragons 1-0 Ulsan Dolphins FA Cup Recap

(photo via dragons.co.kr)

Jeonnam earns a place in the Korean FA Cup semifinals with a narrow win over National League's Ulsan Hyundai Mipo Dockyard Dolphins.

For the first time since 2010 the Jeonnam Dragons are heading to the FA Cup semifinals after eeking out a much slimmer win than anyone expected against a team with the longest name in human history. In front of a crowd of 1,346 (a number that might include the players), the Dragons were stymied early and had difficulty throughout the night breaking down the swath of Dolphins defenders. Lee Jong-ho eventually found the breakthrough in the 68th minute in what essentially looked like a warm up for Sunday's K-League match against Jeju.

I had a hunch Noh Sang-rae would go with his strongest lineup after the All Star break, and it proved to be a good hunch. Oršić, Lee Jong-ho, and Ristić started up front, Kim Byung-ji in the back, and the only surprise of the match was Leandro Lima getting a spot start in the midfield. It could be considered odd for all the regulars to be trotted out, but it was a good chance for them to get back in shape and also proves how seriously Jeonnam's taking the FA Cup. Perhaps more strange than the personnel choices was putting Lima in a holding role in what looked like a 4-3-3. Perhaps Noh Sang-rae is channeling his inner Jürgen Klinsmann and is attempting to play midfielders out of their comfort zone to enhance certain attributes? Lima didn't look entirely uncomfortable in the position and usually did quite well transitioning the ball from the defense up the field. In a delightful twist of fate, having Lima in the holding position opened up the left side for Hyun Young-min to power forward from the leftback spot and holy hell did he. Almost all of the offense in the first half was channeled through Hyun Young-min and he was doing quite well with the responsibility. Choi Hyo-jin is usually responsible for the offensive efforts of the backline, but I'm guessing coming back from injury recently has relegated him to strictly defensive duties where he had his usual strong showing.

As well as things were going for Hyun Young-min moving forward, the Dragons were often stalled by the Dolphins playing a 5-4-1 that looked more like a 5-2-2-1 with two defensive midfielders rarely going past the half way line. The middle was simply too clogged for any of the midfield to hold the ball longer than a one touch pass, so the play naturally went out to the wings. The Dragons lobbed ball after ball into the middle, but the front line was outnumbered and couldn't get any freedom or decent looks on net. Often times the entirety of the Dolphins squad was behind the ball frequently double teaming anyone they deemed a threat. This led to Lee Chang-min and Lima each taking ineffective shots from distance in an attempt to at least work the Dolphins keeper.

After holding steady for the first 20 minutes, Ulsan began allowing a few more players forward and had a few truly great chances they weren't able to capitalize on. Their best chance came in the 30th minute when a break down the wing led to a lovely cross that the attacker hit directly at a grateful Kim Byung-ji. Absolutely anywhere else on frame and the visitors would've had a shock 1-0 lead. The rest of the half finished the way it had gone to that point with the Dragons dominating possession, but not finding the breakthrough.

As was to be expected, Jeonnam came out strong in the second half and rattled off three decent shots on net in the first three minutes. I'm not entirely sure if it was to use him as a human time out or not, but the Dolphins' Lee Hyung-soo entered the match in the 50th minute for Woong Byun. Can't say I've seen many 50th minute substitutions and would assume if Ulsan really wanted him on they would've brought him on at the half, but kudos to them for the human timeout method. The Dragons countered the move three minutes later with Jeong Seok-min coming in for Lima to push the attack forward more and eliminate the holding role.

After coming out strong, the Dragons absorbed some legitimate pressure from Ulsan and wound up scoring on the counter. Whether it was a bait and switch tactic by Noh Sang-rae or if Ulsan was truly growing in confidence and pushing forward, the end result benefited the Dragons. Mercifully the opening goal came in the 68th when Lee Jong-ho slotted home a cross that looked amazingly similar to the one the Dolphins had on the same net in the first half.

Seemingly comfortable with the 1-0 home lead, Jeon Hyeon-chul was brought on for Ristić in the last 15 minutes presumably for defensive abilities. Jeonnam also caught a break with the Dolphins temporarily going down to 10 men after using all three subs and their striker going down with a leg cramp. Killed about two minutes off the clock when they could've been pressing. The three minutes of added time was easily killed off by the home team and they thanked their lucky stars for avoiding what would've been a huge upset.

During the regular season it's easy to say three points is three points and walk away from an "ugly" win. It's even easier to do it in a knockout tournament like the FA Cup. At the end of the night the Dragons did what they needed to do and are one step closer to securing an AFC Champions League spot by winning this tournament. Doesn't really matter how they got it done. 

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