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Ulsan Dolphins vs Jeonnam Dragons FA Cup Preview

Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors' Tim Lee continues our FA Cup coverage by asking a few questions about the Jeonnam Dragons upcoming match against the Ulsan Mipo Dolphins and their overall chances in the tournament.

He Asks, I Answer

Tim Lee: Jeonnam have obviously been quite fortunate in drawing the easiest opponent of the Quarter-Finals. Do you think that Noh Sang-rae will be deploying his best XI for this match, or will he give other players a start?

Given the fact that the Dragons haven't played a competitive match since their late thriller against Daejeon on the 12th, I'd be surprised if Noh Sang-rae puts out too much of a B squad. Jeonnam will be hosting this match so travel won't be an issue. While they do have a match coming up this Sunday against Jeju, it's another home game, so there's plenty of time for the regulars to rest. Ideally I'd like to see him put two of the three big guns out there to start. Oršić, Lee Jong-ho, or Round 22 MVP Ristić should get a start with one of them on the bench as an "oh shit" situational sub. This should be another chance for Jeon Hyeon-chul to shine up top, but other than that I wouldn't expect too many new faces. I still say the FA Cup is Jeonnam's best chance at ACL 2016, so hopefully they take this match quite seriously.

TL: We saw what underdogs could do last round when Yeungnam University took Seongnam FC to extra time. Is there a chance that Jeonnam will underestimate the Dolphins?

There's always that chance. The fact that the Dockyard Dolphins are this far in the tournament is a testament to how good they can be, but also how much fun FA Cups are. Everyone likes an underdog doing more than they should and that usually happens from a bigger team sleeping on em. As I said in the Daejeon preview, the Dragons have played down to their opponents before, so it wouldn't be unheard of, but I'd be surprised if they do it here. Again, the FA Cup is far and away their easiest route to ACL next year and they know it. There are only 5 points separating the 3rd place Dragons and 9th place Gwangju at this point in the K-League season, so depending on a top 3 finish isn't exactly the safest bet. It's attainable, sure, but not quite like the FA Cup is. Also, with Jeonbuk holding down a 7 point lead over Suwon and a whopping 13 point lead over Jeonnam, the title's well out of reach for the Dragons, so this tournament's their only shot at silverware this year.

Timing has also helped immensely here. Had the Dragons been coming off a weekend game, they could be a bit tired and already looking ahead to the match against Jeju. However, with a nice long break behind them, the team should be eager to hit the pitch and get back in form for the stretch run of the season.

TL: Who do you think will be the key players in this match?

The midfielders. The Dolphins run in this tournament has been impressive, but they've yet to score more than two goals in a FA Cup match, so the Dragons defense likely won't be tested too much. The key for Jeonnam will be how well the midfielders can transition from the defensive third, retain possession, and put in smart balls to the attackers. It's tempting to say Lee Jong-ho and Oršić will be key because they always are, but I honestly think Jung Seok-min and Kim Pyung-rae's transition play will be the difference maker. At this point in the season it's obvious that the attackers will do their job if given the chance, it's now a matter of how many chances the midfielders underneath them will create.

TL: Looking forward - do you feel there is a chance that Jeonnam can win the FA Cup?

At this point I'd say they should win it. Barring a catastrophe against the Dolphins, Jeonnam will be into the semis with the potential opposition of Seongnam, Ulsan, FC Seoul, Pohang, Jeju, or Incheon. They've already picked up a win against four of those six teams, and seem more snake-bit against Jeju than actually being outmatched. Pohang's the only team that truly scares me in the tournament, but the Dragons recent 0-0 draw against them suggests they're evenly matched and Jeonnam's due for a POSCO Derby win anyway. It's also quite possible FC Seoul knocks them off before the Dragons would have to face them.

This year's been a great surprise for the team and a top 3 finish would be great, but winning their first hardware since 2007 could really help set the tone for next season. It's a team with a lot of talent and winning a trophy could go a long way to ensure that talent stays where it is (at least in the short term). Winning the FA Cup and getting into ACL may also force POSCO to spend a bit more on the team than they have in recent years to shore up any holes left from the off season. But... that's a problem for future Dragons. In the meantime, Jeonnam are the team with the most talent left in the tournament, so they should win it.

TL: Finally, score prediction?

I underestimated their scoring ability in their previous FA Cup match against Chungju, so I'll err on the side of optimism and hope the class shows through. 3-0 to the Dragons.

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