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FA Cup Preview: Incheon United vs Jeonnam Dragons

Two teams with nothing left to play for in Relegation Round face off to earn a spot in this year's FA Cup Final and a shot at 2016 AFC Champions League.

Having already been reduced to the Relegation Round in K-League, the determination of success or failure for the 2015 Jeonnam Dragons now resides in a single FA Cup match against a reeling Incheon team that barely missed Championship Round. The hows and whys of the Dragons dramatic slide from 3rd to 7th were already detailed in their Relegation Round preview, so I'll skip em here for the sake of time. The short version is that Jeonnam's only hope for AFC Champions League play in 2016 is to win the FA Cup and that task now includes the long road trip to Sungui Arena Park and beating Incheon United on the road.

Looking at the Dragons larger body of work this season, the road hasn't exactly been their friend. Through 33 league games they've managed a 3-5-8 road record with two of the wins coming against season long cellar dwellers Daejeon and Busan. However, that third and final win... that was at Incheon. So unlike most stadiums in the country, the Dragons know they can go into this one and come home with a win. Additionally, the FA Cup has oddly been quite kind to Jeonnam on the road. The shock penalty kicks win in Suwon back in May was not only a thrilling match, but it set the tone of anything being possible for the rest of the tournament. Jeonnam were then able to do what they were supposed to and convincingly beat a lower division opponent on the road in the second round topping an outmatched Chungju Hummel FC 4-1. They laid a bit of an egg in a 1-0 win against the Ulsan Dolphins at home, but it was enough to get them to the semi-final and the fact remains they've played quite well on the road in this tournament. While Gwangyang Stadium has seen 67% of the Dragons league points this year, the lone game they played there in the FA Cup didn't exactly inspire confidence. So at a time of grasping for silver linings, perhaps being on the road for this one is a blessing in disguise?

Like Jeonnam, the path to the semi-final was made on the road for Incheon. Their lone home match was against K-League Challenge's Bucheon 1995 and saw an extremely early goal from Kevin Oris all but seal victory as they were able to hunker down and eventually add a second to secure the win. They then strolled down to Chonan Soccer Center where they should've had an easy road win against National League side Cheonan City. However, it took an 84th minute strike from Kim Jin-hwan to see United into the next round. Their quarter-final match in Jeju meant one of the longer trips possible in Korean football and it showed on the field as the sides headed into extra time knotted at zero. Incheon were able to score amazingly early in extra time with a 91st minute tally by Kwon Wan-kyu putting Jeju into a disheveled state that would see them concede again in the 107th to Kim Do-hyuk, which sealed the win for United. The parallels between Incheon and Jeonnam's FA Cup campaigns goes a bit beyond their road victories though. Both have faced a strong Classic team on the road and pulled out a late win. Both struggled more than they should have to pull off a slim win against a National side, and both posted their largest tournament victory against Challenge teams.

However, Incheon and Jeonnam find themselves with completely opposite strengths heading into the semi-final. With Jeonnam's 8 goals scored compared to Incheon's 5, the Dragons have shown more firepower, which is little surprise given the fact that the vast majority of the FA Cup happened before their current skid. Unfortunately for those of us wearing our yellow pajamas to bed for good luck tonight, Incheon has yet to concede a single goal in the FA Cup this year. Their defense has been their undeniable strength holding opponents scoreless through 300 minutes of FA Cup action on top of a near league-leading 0.88 goals against during the regular season. It could be said Incheon have eked by in this tournament with narrow victories, but if the opposition doesn't score any, you only need one goal to win.

United will likely be looking to get that lone goal as early as possible tomorrow night. While the Men In Blazers will contend you can score too early, it's something Incheon has relied on in this tournament and is certainly something that would bode well for them in this matchup. The Dragons haven't won a game since the US landed on the moon and are utterly reeling confidence-wise. After closing out the regular season with three straight losses and winless in 10 an early goal on the road might be enough to break the back of a team without much fight left in em. Add in the fact that manager Noh Sang-rae benched Stevo, Oršić, and Choi Hyo-jin vs FC Seoul and you're looking at a team that hasn't had three of its essential players go the full 90 in a month. For a game week that was book-ended with bye-weeks the benchings vs Seoul came as a perplexing choice in a long list of roster oddities for the Jeonnam skipper. The theory, I'm sure, is that they'll now be well rested for the biggest game of the season, but there's a colossal difference between rested and rusty. Going four weeks without playing 90 minutes arguably pushes these three influential players into the latter category and disrupts their timing, fitness, and the cohesion needed with their teammates. All three have enough talent to play through it, but it's not a situation they should've been put in given the gravity of this match. Whether or not the time off is enough to hinder Jeonnam's true strength of tournament will be seen tomorrow night.

In the clash of an immovable object like Incheon's defense vs the formerly unstoppable force of Jeonnam's offense I would usually give the advantage to the team in form, however both are bewildered at the moment. Though Incheon's defense has been stellar in cup play and positive in league play, they haven't held an opponent scoreless since their 1-0 win over Jeonbuk back on August 22nd. For the Dragons, I've long documented their offensive woes (here, here, and here), but they've at least managed to score multiple goals in two of their previous three matches and seem to have the offense looking up. Meanwhile, the two goals Incheon scored against Busan on September 19th provided their lone multi-goal game since August. These recent offensive struggles combined with their defensive record in the Cup and Jeonnam's road woes point back to the notion of Incheon wanting to score early and park the bus. Incheon also has the pressure of performing for their home fans while the Dragons can truly play like they have nothing to lose... because they damn well don't. The longer this game goes scoreless, the bigger an advantage it is to Jeonnam. Despite not scoring in bulk recently, the talent is still there for the Dragons to tally at almost any time and the longer Incheon fails to do so themselves, the more likely they are to try and force the issue and create gaps Jeonnam can exploit on the counter.

I really should know better... but the homer in me is coming out. Hopefully the offense picking up the last few weeks isn't a fluke and they can find the back of the net more than once. Predicting a 2-1 win for Jeonnam and place in the final.

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