Preview: Jeonnam Dragons vs Ulsan Hyundai
In their final match of the 2016 season there's seemingly very little for the Dragons to play for. Their brief hopes of an AFC Champions League spot have been dashed and the best finish they can hope for is 5th place. However, there's still quite a bit to be sorted out on the final day with lots and lots of scoreboard watching.
|Jeonnam Dragons||Ulsan Hyundai|
|Date:||Nov 6, 2016|
|Game Week:||Round 39|
|Venue:||Suncheon Palma Stadium|
It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)
In their previous three matches the Dragons have squared off against K-League's top three teams (Jeonbuk, FC Seoul, Jeju) and have proven they don't belong in the same category. The once strong defense surrendered 12 goals through the three matches and erased any hope Jeonnam had of ACL after their win at Sangju. Speaking of Sangju, Jugović's lone goal in that 1-0 win three weeks ago was the last time the Dragons even held a lead in a match. Since then they've trailed in 190 of the 270 minutes they've played and often haven't looked like a team from the same league. For a team that roared into Championship Round on a 8-4-3 run to end the regular season, they've failed to even be competitive against the league's best. But, in fairness to the players themselves, newly appointed manager Song Kyung-sub (or more likely "assistant" Noh Sang-rae still calling the shots) has thoroughly handicapped the team by starting the 3rd and 2nd string goalkeepers in back to back games along with a slew of other players who've barely seen the field this year. But, more on that in a bit. Baffling lineup choices and any other excuses aside, the simple fact is Jeonnam can't hack it with the big dogs in K-League. Not yet anyway.
There's no other way to explain the baffling lineup choices of the previous two games than to consider them auditions for the 2017 season. The inclusions of Bang Dae-jong, Kim Kyeong-jae, and most bewilderingly 3rd string keeper Han Yoo-sung getting his first ever start against Jeonbuk all pointed to conceding that game in honor or sorting out who'll be cut before the team starts preseason training. The mentality lessened slightly a few days later vs Seoul, but starting Bang yet again and giving 2nd string keeper Kim Gyo-bin his first start of 2016 equally screamed of conceding the game in favor of roster assessment. Had the Dragons come into the match in a similar situation to Sangju (content with 6th place and nothing to play for in the final five matches), then these lineup choices would've been great. Season's essentially over for all intent and purposes, so why not start taking a look ahead? But the Dragons weren't in Sangju's situation. They were on 46 points through 34 rounds and just 2 points behind Ulsan for 4th place and a potential ACL play-in spot. Sure the loss to Jeju in Round 35 set them back, but they weren't finished. They were still only 3 points behind Ulsan for 4th. But instead of fighting until the end of the season, the organization waved the white flag on 2016 and started clearing off the bench and playing a weak lineup against the league's top two. The lack of fight frustrating, but the same organization that changed from Noh Sang-rae to Song Kyung-sub due to AFC licensing and Noh's inability to manage in Champions League just days earlier is baffling. Why give up on the season and start auditions so early when just days ago they made a coaching switch with an eye on ACL? Even in the name of auditions, it just doesn't make sense.
A Farewell to Palma
This Sunday will mark the end of Jeonnam's brief run at Palma Stadium and the end can't come soon enough. Though they've enjoyed larger crowds in the three matches they've played in Suncheon (5813 in Round 11, 3,574 in Round 33 4,253 in Round 36), they've yet to pick up a single point in the stadium. It's actually been a house of horrors with the Dragons being shut out twice, outscored by a combined 9-1 over the three matches, and suffering their worst loss in 2016; the 5-0 drubbing last weekend vs Jeonbuk. So... not exactly upset to see them leaving Palma behind. The larger crowds will be missed, but given the on-field product Jeonnam have put together in Suncheon it's doubtful that many would continue to turn out after the novelty wore off. The good news heading into this match is that the Dragons do not draw at home. It's been 12 games since a home draw for Jeonnam and this Sunday likely won't be any different given the team's run of form. They'll either pull a rabbit out of the hat and end the year on a high note, or they'll play they way they have been and there'll at least be some goals on the board. Either way, I wouldn't expect a scoreless affair for the farewell to Palma.
Unlike Jeonnam, Ulsan have used their Championship Round run to prove they can hold their own with the league's best. In fact, they held the league's two highest scoring teams, Jeonbuk and Jeju, scoreless in the Championship Round matches they had with them. Granted, Ulsan had the good fortune of playing both of those teams at home, but it's still an impressive accomplishment given what Jeonbuk and Jeju have done to opposing defenses this year. Though they were recently (and heartbreakingly for their fans) knocked out of the FA Cup by the heroics of Suwon Samsung's Johnathan, they team still holds a shot at making ACL 2017 should Seoul win the FA Cup.
Historically this is a tremendously even match up for Jeonnam. In their previous 10 meetings both teams have won four games and drew twice, with the Dragons winning the two most recent matches. Additionally, Ulsan have only held five away clean sheets this season, so if ever there were a chance to break the duck at Palma, this would be it.
Who To Watch
None other than Comeback Player of the Year nominee Ivan Kovacec. The man better known as Koba has had a strong year being involved in 40% of Ulsan's goals scored with 7 goals and 9 assists to his name in his first full season with the club. However, more than the numbers he's put on the board, Koba has proven durable throughout the season with 35 appearances and 28 starts while marching to the third highest minutes total on the team. His constant presence in the lineup not only helps Ulsan in their midfield battle, but also give opposing managers a headache attempting to match the 188cm midfielder for size and pace. He was a late sub for Kim In-sung in Ulsan's scoreless draw vs Jeju midweek, but look for him to start and be a continual problem for whatever midfield pairing Song Kyung-sub decides to throw together.
The Dragons players that are out there will put up a good fight, but the combination of appalling lineup choices and lack of anything to play for will eventually catch up to them and the curse of Palma will continue.
Jeonnam Dragons 1-2 Ulsan Hyundai
What are your thoughts and predictions? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter:
Will the Dragons win & break the Palma Stadium curse this Sunday or will Ulsan prevail?#KLeague Match Preview: https://t.co/XEvXoDNcFc— Ryan Walters (@MrRyanWalters) November 4, 2016