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Jeonnam Dragons vs Ulsan Preview

The 3rd and 4th place finishers in this year's FA Cup face off in a game with nothing at stake and both eyes likely on shaping the 2016 roster.

If it's true that the darkest hour is just before the dawn, then surely the Dragons are mired in a Groundhog Day "hour" they can't escape. Jeonnam hasn't won it's previous 5 home games, and is winless in their last 11. A stretch that seemingly goes on and on into eternity. Breaking the streak won't prove easy against fellow FA Cup Semifinalist Ulsan, who's also stinging from dropping out of that tournament, but has been in tremendous league form of late.

In a true case of too little too late, Ulsan made a charge up the table and away from the relegation zone by going undefeated in their last six league games before the split. While it was enough to get them clear of the Busan and Daejeon danger zone, it wasn't quite enough to get them to the Championship Round. This recent inspired run of form has come almost 100% on the back of the 27-year-old Kim Shin-wook, who's currently tied with FC Seoul's Adriano in the league's Golden Boot race with 15. Aside from the 0-0 draw at Daejeon on October 4th and 2-2 draw at Jeju on September 13th, Shin-wook has scored in every Ulsan match at least once dating back to their 2-1 win in Gwangju on August 29th. A stretch that included two absolute back-breakers to Jeonnam's Championship Round hopes in a 3-2 Ulsan win back on September 19th after the Dragons had an early two goal lead. While it could be argued both of his goals were the result of woeful defending as opposed to offensive prowess, they all count the same. And if a player keeps getting lucky again and again, after a while it has to be admitted that it's not exactly luck. Look for him to be lurking around the Dragons net Sunday afternoon and likely increasing his goal total on the season. Shin-wook is nearly unstoppable in the air on a normal day, but the Dragons dreadful set piece defending means nearly every corner kick has a chance of ending up in the back of the net with such a powerful striker in the box.

Aside from a leaky Jeonnam backline that hasn't held a clean sheet in seven games attempting to stop the league-leading goal scorer, there's also the matter of the Dragons offense remaining stuck in neutral. Held scoreless in two of their previous three matches, the final third continues to be a struggle for the once authoritative attack. Whether it's a lack of confidence or tactical deficiency it's clear something has gone missing for Jeonnam. Given the talent levels on the team, I tend to lean more towards a lack of new tactics from the manager... but that's an article for another day.

The only silver lining in recent matches is that Lee Jong-ho has started to assert himself up top. Despite the fact the Dragons have been shut out in two of their previous five matches, Jong-ho has scored three goals in that stretch including a brace vs FC Seoul that really should've won them the game if the Dragons defense was worth anything. His recent surge puts him on 10 goals for the year, matching his personal best from last season. As Tomáš Daníček pointed out on Twitter, the back to back 10 goal seasons makes Lee Jong-ho the first Korean to do so for Jeonnam since manager Noh Sang-rae did it back in the 1998 and 1999 campaigns. Going up against an Ulsan defense that's allowed two goals in three of their previous five league matches, Jong-ho should be primed to set a new goal scoring mark for himself this Sunday.

The ascent of Lee Jong-ho couldn't come at a better time for the struggling Dragons. Not for this season (which is all but officially over), but for 2016. With Stevo's contract expiring, it's tough to see him wanting to re-sign with a team that can't offer much in the way of trophies for what will likely be his last contract. To keep the bad news coming, rookie phenom Mislav Oršić's loan from NK Rijeka is also expiring this season and a deal already appears to be in place.
With nine goals and seven assists in his first season with the team, it's obvious Jeonnam will miss what he brings statistically, but it's his creativity and pace that simply can't be replaced. Lee Jong-ho will be able to pick up some of the slack next season, but a large part of his success has come from opposing defenses targeting Stevo and Oršić leaving more space for the powerful young Korean. Granted, a deal being in place for Oršić doesn't mean the Dragons are out of the running, but given the report says it's for $1 million might lean indications more that way. The shared hope amongst K-League fans is that he at least stays in the league as he's a tremendous talent and a joy to watch. We'll likely know where he'll land in the next few weeks... so keep your fingers crossed.

But back to the matter at hand. Sunday's match sees two teams with nothing left to play for in the standings, but both Kim Shin-wook and Lee Jong-ho will look to improve on their already standout performances. There's also the question of what squad Noh Sang-rae will put out there now that FA Cup is officially history. It's safe to assume Kim Min-sik will get the nod in net and that Kim Byung-ji's illustrious career is likely over. Aside from that, it'll be interesting to see which youngsters will get a crack at the first team with both eyes now on 2016. At 21 and 22 respectively, Lee Chang-min and Lee Seul-chan should really be starting this match to see how they pair together in the midfield and if it'll be enough going into next season. Given the state of affairs, there's also very little reason not to start Lee Ji-min on defense and see what the kid's got. There's no better feet-to-the-fire test like going up against Kim Shin-wook. Regardless of who starts, it's difficult to see the Dragons fully breaking their slump against a strong Ulsan side. Jeonnam plays much better at home, but it likely won't be enough to shut down Kim Shin-wook and earn all three points to end the slide.

Prediction: Jeonnam 1-1 Ulsan

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