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Jeonnam Dragons vs Ulsan Hyundai Preview

(via Dragons.co.kr)

Jeonnam look to take advantage of home field and Ulsan's poor form to climb their way into the K-League's top 3.

The undefeated in five Jeonnam Dragons will host the winless in four Ulsan Hyundai this Sunday in a match that should at least keep the Dragons in the fight for a Champions League spot. With their last three league games against top 4 opponents, the Dragons managed to take 5 out of a possible 9 points and sit 5th in the table. Though they haven't increased their standing tremendously, only one of the next six opponents is above them in the table (Suwon), so the time to pummel the opposition and gain ground is upon us.

Though it could (and should) be argued that Jeonnam could've done better in the previous two colossal games, the end results aren't terrible. Had you told me before the Jeonbuk game that I would actually get the score prediction right and the Dragons would pick up a point in truly unfriendly territory, I would've been perfectly happy. Unfortunately I don't live in a vacuum and actually watched the game. Though everything started out well (especially the worldy of a goal scored by Oršić in the 12th minute), it all went downhill directly after this tweet:
I really should've known better. The Dragons then conceded two quick goals off set pieces to Lee Jae-sung in the 77th and Jang Yun-ho in the 79th. What hurt the most at the time was the laundry list of chances the Dragons had in the half before allowing the back to back goals. A 3-0 lead would've surely been a knockout punch, but they just couldn't push it by Jeonbuk's Kwon Soon-tae. Then it got worse. Noh Sang-rae decided a great late game strategy would be to pull Oršić. You know, the workhorse who'd scored in four straight games and was playing lights out? Noh took him off in a tied rivalry game in the 81st minute. If the reasoning was that Oršić may have been tired, then don't play him for 70 minutes in a one-sided FA Cup game against Chungju. If the reasoning wasn't for fitness, then I surely can't think of one. Oršić was replaced by Ahn Yong-woo, who I like just fine, but he's just not playing at the same level. Why sub off your best player with under 10 minutes left in the game? It. Doesn't. Make. Sense.

However, let's narrow in on that silver lining a bit more. Aside from gathering a tough point on the road, the other good news was that Kim Min-sik got a rare start in net and looked quite good. I still haven't been able to find out why Kim Byung-ji wasn't between the sticks, but given the status of the game and his utterly cemented standing as the number one, I'd have to believe it was a small injury of some kind.

Then came the POSCO rivalry game with Pohang. Though the Dragons had a 58% to 42% advantage in possession, more corners, and only allowed one shot on target from the visitors, the telling stat of the game is the astounding 17 fouls committed by the Steelers. It was simply a brutally physical match played between bitter rivals that probably didn't deserve an out and out winner, though the stats seemingly beg otherwise. The biggest concern coming out of this match was actually in watching the replay. Multiple times in the match it seemed Lee Jong-ho was legitimately fouled and not only didn't get the calls, but picked up a yellow for simulation. In live time the calls seemed out of place, but the replays show a level of diving Arjen Robben would be proud of. The yellow was most definitely earned for Lee Jong-ho and he'd do well to keep it in mind the next time he flails to the ground with zero contact.

Back to that silver lining though. The good news coming out of the Pohang match was the Dragons defense looking quite orderly and picking up their second clean sheet in three matches. They'll look to do the same against an Ulsan side that's only scored 9 goals in 9 road games this season to the tune of a 1-3-5 road record. In fact, 68% of Ulsan Hyundai's games this season have had under 2.5 goals in total, so the defense should do well if they can stick to what they've done in recent weeks. This should not however imply that the Dragons have a simple task ahead of them. Ulsan's main threat is Yang Dong-hyun, a 29-year-old striker who has already come close to his 2014 goal total with 7 so far. A mark good enough to put him in a 5-way tie for second place in the Golden Boot race. A touch of good news for Jeonnam is that Yang hasn't scored in league play in his previous three matches, so it's possible he's on a bit of a cold streak. However, even if Yang's not hot, his strike partner Kim Shin-wook isn't exactly a slouch. After scoring 19 in 2013, Kim Shin-wook had an injury shortened 2014 that still saw him put up 9 goals through 20 matches. Though he only has 6 goals through 19 appearances this season, five of the six have come in the last month and include a brace against Daejeon, so he's certainly warming up.

After having played well for the vast majority of the match against Edu and Leonardo in Jeonbuk, the Dragons defense should be up for the dual threat task Ulsan brings. However, Jeonnam has had a troublesome history of playing to their opponents level. It's great when they're playing the likes of Jeonbuk, Suwon, and Pohang, but it's caused a lot of headaches against the likes of Jeju, Daejeon, and Gwangju. Most of those cases were in the Dragons dreadful month of May and hopefully are far behind them at this point. Even with the still mysterious absence of Choi Hyo-jin, the Jeonnam backline should hold strong against the formidable attack of Ulsan if they keep their heads and don't pay attention to their opponents spot in the table.

From the offensive side of things, the Dragons simply need to look to basketball strategy and play the hot hand: Mislav Oršić. After netting four goals in four games, Oršić was held off the scoresheet Wednesday, but will certainly be back in the starting 11 this Sunday looking to tally again. While I'm not a huge fan of the way he's been handled by Noh Sang-rae, the young Croatian is doing enough with his time on the field to be the difference maker for Jeonnam. His play has also helped Lee Jong-ho immensely. Gwangyang Rooney is no longer expected to make everything tick the second the ball crosses into the offensive half and is able to do more off of the ball to find space and get his shots in. Should Lee Jong-ho manage to stay upright for the entirety of the match, he'll likely have 2-3 favorable looks at the net.

With a massive Wednesday matchup against Suwon looming, it'd be great to see the roster rotated a bit. Ideally, Kim Min-sik will get another nod between the pipes to see more of what he has to offer. He played quite well against Jeonbuk and this matchup against Ulsan at home would be a great way to find out if that performance was a one off, or a sign of form. Also, at the ripe young age of 45, there's no reason to keep trotting Kim Byung-ji out there every single matchday. Let him rest and run a comb through that glorious glorious mullet. It'd also be nice to see 21-year-old midfielder Lee Seul-chan get another go. His start Wednesday was only his 5th of the season and 7th appearance overall. He held his own in an extremely physical match and went the full 90 against a tough Pohang team. Should earn him another nod in my opinion.

Regardless of what lineup Noh Sang-rae lands on, it'll be important for them to pounce early to get the crowd involved and put the fear of yet another road loss into the heads of Ulsan. Look for the Dragons to press early and send in plenty of crosses to Ristić. If that avenue is cut off, Oršić and Lee Jong-ho should be encouraged to have a go with any open look near the box. More to the point, if they want to be rested for Suwon, Jeonnam need to build a lead that will allow regulars to be subbed off at the half or 60 minute mark.

Prediction: 2-0 to the Dragons

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