Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs Sangju Sangmu
Last Time Out
While they may have only left Gangwon with a draw last weekend, Jeonbuk gave one of their most threatening displays so far in 2017. Deploying a 3-4-1-2 with Edu and Kim Shin-wook leading the line, it was only the strikers' inability to finish their chances that meant the North Jeolla side did not claim the full three points and prise the first place spot away from the high-flying Jeju United.
Fortunately, Kim Shin-wook did eventually find the back of the net with the help of an exquisite cross from the left back Kim Jin-su. Taking the ball from a poor Gangwon clearance to the flanks, the ex-Hoffenheim man required a single touch to both control it and move it forward into space before looking up and sending in a pinpoint aerial ball sailing over the heads of the Gangwon defence and onto the latest questionable hair choice of the towering striker. The only question raised by the quality of this header was "Why has Kim Shin-wook not done this more often for Jeonbuk?"
Unfortunately, "The Wookie" was unable to claim the headlines once more as young defender Kim Min-jae, perhaps showing the first glimpses of naivety, charged into the back midfielder Moon Chang-jin who slowed up in the penalty box to line up a shot. Unlike at Incheon three weeks prior, there was to be no penalty saving heroics from goalkeeper Hong Jeong-nam as Gangwon's Brazilian striker Diego Maurício made no mistake in slotting home from the spot.
Jeonbuk should perhaps not feel too disheartened however as they are still without several key names yet were easily the more dominant team in this fixture. Hopefully, if they can produce a similar performance this weekend, it could prove more profitable.
Highlights from Jeonbuk 1-1 Gangwon match can be viewed here.
This week saw Jeonbuk's winter signing Kim Jin-su feature in his fourth (out of a possible five) K League Classic team of the round. The left-back's arrival has proved to be an inspired piece of business, with his dribbling, crosses and ability from a dead-ball situation helping to slowly nurse the wounds left by the departed Leonardo. The Jeonju-born defender looks happy to be playing competitive football again after spending so long out of favour at Hoffenheim. His cross for Kim Shin-wook's goal at the weekend saw him bring his season statistics up to two goals and two assists in five appearances. His recall to the starting line-up in the recent Korean national squad just further exemplifies the redemption narrative he seems to be enjoying. In a league that last weekend saw only eleven goals (scored in three of the six games) and two non-draws, the quality he brings to these shores is both notable and refreshing. Long may his resurgence continue!
It has been touched on before, but it is worth reiterating the extent to which Jeonbuk's sick bay seems to be filling up. While the long term lay-off of Lopes (cruciate ligament) until mid-season was expected, the late pre-season injuries of key player Lee Jae-sung (fractured shin) and the unknown Mazola (ankle) disrupted any tactical plans manager Choi Kang-hee may have been considering.
Since then, there have also been lengthy lay-offs to winger Lee Seung-gi (cruciate ligament) and club talisman Lee Dong-gook (hamstring) which have seen the manager deploying tactics that he himself has admitted are simplified and tailored to the opposition's strategy with the players he has, rather than play in the style he desires.
Unless there has been further injury woes by Sunday, it is likely we will see a repeat of the 3-4-1-2 deployed against Incheon (0-0), Gangwon (1-1) and in the last thirty minutes against FC Seoul to maintain a 1-0 lead. While I will contest the inclusion of Edu in that line-up, the rest of the players do seem to be the best available, making it difficult to bemoan some of the performances.
Jeonbuk are still narrowly in second place with Jeju though, with arguably two of the bigger fixtures completed, whilst also bringing in the full six points from these games and two clean sheets in the process. Sunday will probably see another game down on excitement, but with the number of lay-offs to consider, results are all that can matter at this stage. Fortunately, Jeonbuk's defence look more than up to the task of ensuring they keep up with the pack.
Having had quite the season in 2016 before half the squad departed in August after finishing their service, military side Sangju Sangmu held on to a top half position and claimed their highest finish in their history. The recruitment lottery looks to have proved fortuitous once again with a number of strong call-ups, forming what has all the makings of yet another formidable outfit. Sangju currently sit in fourth place and a win would take them above Jeonbuk and into at least the top three, possibly as high as first depending on results elsewhere.
New manager Kim Tae-wan has got his side lining up in a 4-3-3 of recent, with an solid spine in Ju Min-kyu (Seoul E-Land), Shin Jin-ho (FC Seoul), Yun Young-sun (FC Seoul) and Lee Woong-hee (Seongnam). Keeper Oh Seung-hoon (Daejeon) has also received plaudits lately, featuring in two of the weekly best elevens this year. Elsewhere, Kim Ho-nam (Jeju United) leads the club's goal scoring charts with three to his name, playing just off to the left in the front three. On the right will likely be Kim Byung-oh (Suwon FC), who's appearance from the bench for the injured Hwang Sun-min against Daegu in round four saw him both equalise and open his account for his temporary team.
Kim Seong-jun (Seoul E-Land) in midfield also looks set to prove a handful, often creating from deep alongside Shin Jin-ho. He rarely featured last season but seems to have found a more permanent spot under the new management.
It's also worth noting that Suwon Bluewings key player Hong Chul has returned from his recent lay-off and is proving a nuisance in the same manner his Jeonbuk counterpart Kim Jin-su has this season. The left back is attacking in nature and tends to overlap down the flank, proving a creative source that may pose a number of questions of Lee Yong.
Last time out, Sangju Sangmu held supposed title favourites Suwon Bluewings to a draw, although if predicted golden boot contender Johnathan had not been so wasteful, the FA Cup holders could have grabbed their first victory of the season. That is not to say Sangju were overwhelmed. The visitors certainly created a number of chances, with passes from central midfield appearing to slice open the Bluewings' defence only for Ju Min-kyu or Kim Byung-oh unable to capitalise. If they are able to craft similar opportunities against the Asian champions on Sunday, you would think that the goals will eventually follow.
Those who think they became accustomed to watching Jeonbuk swat away opposition with ease last season may wish to remove their neon green tinted glasses for this one. Despite thrashing a depleted and unmotivated Sangju Sangmu at the end of last season, their other three meetings all proved to be very tricky affairs, with Jeonbuk drawing away twice, and winning 3-2 at home after initially being 2-0 down. Granted, this Sangju team lacks the sometimes free-for-all attacking nature of last year's iteration at present, but there are still quality players who are capable of causing a number of problems for sides.
With the home team still looking hungry yet evidently suffering from a lengthening injury list, I imagine they will once again heavily rely on their wing backs to both defend and create. Their strikers' squandering nature will not see them produce the number of goals expected of them, but the home advantage should see them just bag enough goals to defeat the visitors.
Predicted Score: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-1 Sangju Sangmu