Recap: Ulsan Hyundai 0-0 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
|Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors manager Choi Kang-hee looks on at his side midweek and considers which eight players he will needlessly drop for Saturday's fixture against fourth placed Ulsan Hyundai (Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)|
With FC Seoul now level on points, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were in desperate need of reasserting their authority on the first place spot. However, they were only able to muster a goalless draw as they traveled to face Ulsan Hyundai, a team who have been desperately playing catch up as Champions League qualification has moved slowly away from them.
Is Choi Kang-hee throwing away the title?
I heavily criticised Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee after the defeat to Jeju United last week. However, the only possible excuse was that he may have been resting players for the AFC Champions League semi-final the following Wednesday, despite already being 4-1 up from the first leg.
One week later, Choi's team managed to lose the fixture midweek (even though Jeonbuk progressed on aggregate) yet did not show any particular signs of stress or exhaustion in the process. Despite this, the manager opted for eight line-up changes, choosing a squad that was arguably compiled of more second-string talent than that which started in the defeat to Jeju last Saturday.
|Jeonbuk Predicted Line-up|
|Jeonbuk Actual Line-up vs Ulsan|
Above are pictures of both my predicted line-up (compiled of what many agree would be Jeonbuk's strongest line-up available) and the actual starting eleven. Whilst Kim Bo-kyung was potentially nursing an injury from the midweek fixture, the absence of Lopes, Lee Jae-sung and Leonardo, with the latter two not even involved amongst the substitutes, was certainly alarming. Perhaps there were injuries, but both players featured in the week without issue. Edu was also chosen to start up front (a player who has scored zero goals since his much hyped return) while all three other striking options were available on the bench.
Jeonbuk's central midfield was comprised of all three recently returned military recruits. Choi Kang-hee has certainly had a fascination in including these players and, whilst there is certainly talent there, since their return Jeonbuk have only won one league game, with that game being the 1-0 victory against Seongnam where the usual midfield four of Leonardo, Lopes, Lee Jae-sung and Kim Bo-kyung started. The returning players are definitely not bad, but their shoehorning into the squad has coincided with any winning flow the team previously had.
You could equally argue that all four of the aforementioned desired midfielders recently started against Sangju Sangmu and were only able to earn a 1-1 draw, but that case in point feels more like an odd blip when compared to the amount of games drawn, and now lost, where they did not feature from the start.
What makes matters more frustrating is that there were only four games remaining before this weekend, with an international week ahead of the Champions League final on November 19th which could have allowed most players to rest. Many would think that the players would be fit enough to get through these next games, especially considering they were given an extended break by barely featuring against Jeju United last weekend. It begs the question, "What is the manager's logic?"
I said in my previous recap that Choi Kang-hee gets a rough ride from some sections of the support (including myself) given his track record, but his apparent disregard for chasing a title that the "first team" had already deemed to have nearly won gives rise to the anger. By all means play a second team if the title is wrapped up but with Seoul now behind on goal difference (not even goals scored), he certainly has some explaining to do.
Is Choi throwing the title? It would be ridiculous to think so, but these line-ups also seem illogical. Perhaps he is frustrated by the nine point deduction although, if so, he needs to overcome it quickly and realise his stubbornness could lose everything his team has worked hard for this year.
Perhaps the team are lacking match fitness but, if this true, then why? Jeonbuk have had a large number of injuries this year, with many of them going unreported and not coming to light until weeks later. The Korean version of the official website (the more frequently updated version) has only reported three injuries all year (to three "star" names; Lee Dong-gook, Kim Bo-kyung and Kim Shin-wook), yet other outlets have eventually been able to report through questioning of their absence in post-match interviews. Why is there a reluctance to report injuries to the fans? And is there a problem with the training methods the manager employs?
Finally, perhaps this team always planned for today. Choi Kang-hee has been known to decide line-ups over a week in advance to balance the schedule, most evident when he made ten changes for the trip to Jeonnam Dragons in May between the ACL Round of 16 fixtures against Melbourne Victory. It was almost an open secret over a week in advance that none of the first team would feature on that weekend, but it was understood and accepted on that occasion due to having to travel to Australia midweek. Given what we had seen in regards to rotation throughout the groups stages though, it could be argued that he had also planned this week's teams again around having a Champions League fixture on Wednesday, despite the team only having to travel to Seoul with the bonus of an incredibly advantageous 4-1 aggregate lead.
Rotating the squad is fine when necessary. It is also acceptable when the alternative options are also capable of winning the game. So often this season though they have not been and, with the finish line in sight, you would think the manager would know this. It feels clearer now, more than any other point in the season, that the manager is solely focused on the Champions League, and is willing to undo 33 rounds of hard work just to claim it.
As you can probably tell from the elongated point written above, Jeonbuk's performance against Ulsan was not exactly stellar. The inclusion of ex-Ansan recruit Shin Hyung-min did admittedly help reassure things defensively in midfield, but wingers Ko Moo-yeol and Han Kyo-won proved ineffective in creating down the flanks, with Edu's presence being deemed null and void thanks to Ulsan's Jeong Seung-hyun marking him out of the game. It resulted in a first half containing little or no chances for the away side, although at least Ulsan's own attempts to break the deadlock were mostly contained to outside of the box.
The second half did not prove to be too entertaining either, but there was at least an increased sense of urgency with the introduction of attacking options Kim Shin-wook, Lopes and Lee Dong-gook for Lee Seung-gi, Han Kyo-won and Edu respectively. If they were fit to play 45 minutes though, especially with the next game a week away, surely it would have been beneficial to include them from the beginning.
Unfortunately, my notes from the game in regards to Jeonbuk's legitimate chances only seem to document a wide long range effort from Lopes being worthy of note. However, as mentioned, Shin Hyung-min in the DM role did shine when it came down to moving back and defending. Shin is understandably looking like an upgrade on the often used youngster Jang Yun-ho in defensive midfield and has done enough to claim a start there in future matches.
Despite my qualms with Jeonbuk's blunt attacking threat, it is also worth noting that Ulsan played particularly well given that they had also rotated many players who had faced FC Seoul a week prior. However, as a Jeonbuk supporter, I found this added to my infuriation because it was a missed opportunity for the champions to reclaim the lead in the title race. Ulsan have a big semi-final next week against Suwon Bluewings which they will see as winnable given their opposition's league form this year and therefore had understandably given some priority towards that fixture.
|Ulsan Line-up verse FC Seoul (away)|
|Ulsan's Starting Eleven against Jeonbuk|
Ulsan will also be disappointed that their manager Yoon Jung-hwan was harshly sent to the stands in stoppage time for stepping outside of his technical area. Jeonbuk were awarded a free kick in the 92nd minute and the referee was called over by the 4th official who pointed him towards the Ulsan bench to much protest. Whether the KFA will opt to reprimand him further or not could have a big effect on the team's Champions League qualification chances in the league. The decision did seem particularly unwarranted and added further sour taste on what was already an incredibly drab affair.
Thanks to Sangju Sangmu's shock 2-2 draw away to FC Seoul, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors just about stayed on top of the league summit. However, their difference is no longer decided by goals scored, but by goal difference. Jeonbuk are back level with FC Seoul and are effectively now in a scoring race until the end of the season. This result was not good enough for the champions and the fault lies fully at the feet of a manager who will no doubt justify Saturday's selection decisions by the clean sheet acquired rather than by the zero goals scored.
There are three games remaining this season, all within a seven day period. Given what we have already seen, will Choi Kang-hee be already planning his rotations, or trust the fitness of his first team players to overcome three more hurdles that they are more than capable of doing? One thing is for sure, the K-League is building towards one of the most anticipated finales in the last few years. It can only get more interesting from here.
Final Score: Ulsan Hyundai 0-0 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Full highlights, if you can call them that, can be viewed on SPOTV here.