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Writer's Chat: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Jeju United

Sunday afternoon sees last year's K League bridesmaids Ulsan Hyundai and Jeju United meet for the first time this season having both made disappointing starts to 2018. They have just one K League point between them, and this game comes off the back of midweek ACL losses for both teams against Chinese opposition. Will either Ulsan or Jeju kick-start their season this weekend? Our columnists Dan Croydon and Branko Belan sat down to discuss. 

Branko Belan Asks, Daniel Croydon Answers

Branko: Ulsan certainly didn't play poorly against SIPG, but were thwarted by a good 'keeper on several occasions, Toyoda had the miss over the bar, while a blown call also cost Ulsan a penalty which would have changed the face of the match.  Is there anything Ulsan could have done differently last Wednesday night in your opinion?

Dan: They could have scored a goal. It's as simple as that. When you play against a strong team and you are beating them in every other department, as Ulsan were, you have to put your chances away. Unfortunately Toyoda was guilty of missing a couple of real sitters that I'm sure he would have scored in any other game.  Blame luck, blame the ref, blame what you will - the fact is Shanghai had one chance from open play and scored.

But Ulsan can take a lot of confidence from the fact they dominated the game, especially in the first half, as well as keeping Oscar, a world-class player, pretty quiet on the night.  They are still in a good position to go through to the last sixteen - a win over Melbourne at home in a few weeks time would be enough. And this Ulsan team does look capable of bossing matches when they want to.  If the players can put in that much effort and commitment on a consistent basis, then there is every reason to believe the Horangi will go far this year.

BB: Ulsan has opened the new K League season with consecutive losses to Jeonbuk and, more shockingly, Sangju last weekend.  What do you attribute this to?

DC: Well I don't expect many teams to leave Jeonju with points this year. But as for what happened last weekend against Sangju, the answer is unfortunately very simple.  Kim Do-hoon fielded a second choice team in order to rest his first choice lineup for that Shanghai game midweek.  He put all his chips on black, making ten changes from the team that had played away in China, betting his fully-rested side would win in the return fixture a week later.  The Sangju game that fell in between the Shanghai matches was clearly a lower priority.

Like many Ulsan fans I wasn't entirely happy with the decision.  It wasn't just that it disrespected the K League and the people who came to watch the Sangju game, but I thought it was destined to backfire. Sure enough both Ulsan teams lost and Kim was left with egg on his face.  The one saving grace was the nature of the performance against Shanghai.  Kim showed that this new look side is capable of competing with one of Asia's strongest, and that his more expansive style should produce results.  Despite the disappointments, I think Ulsan fans can see that positive changes are happening, and they are gaining confidence in their team. 

BB: In four head-to-head matches last season, Jeju won three of four, including a 1-0 away success at Munsu in the championship round which secured them second spot in the league and automatic qualification to the ACL.  Would you say it might give them a psychological edge going into the match?

DC:  There have been a lot of changes at both clubs since that game.  Ulsan certainly look a different side now compared to the one that went on such a dreadful run at the end of last season.  Kim Do-hoon has got his side playing at a much higher tempo and with greater freedom.  The new-look midfield means the likes of Orsic and Kim In-sung look much more dangerous as they have space to run at fullbacks and create openings. Jeju, on the other hand, seem to be going the other way.  From what I've seen things just aren't flowing as well for the Islanders this year.

BB:  Ulsan have looked solid in the Champions League thus far, but are still looking to get their first victory of the domestic campaign, and they have a shot at doing it on Sunday.  Does Kim Do-hoon have to change anything tactically to get a result?

DC: No I don't think he needs to change much from the side that faced Shanghai.  But that doesn't mean he won't.  If we've learnt anything from Ulsan's lineups over the first six games of the season it's to expect the unexpected.  Tinkerman Kim has already used three different players to spearhead the attack, but I really hope he sticks with Toyoda this weekend.  His work-rate has been exceptional so far and once he scores his first goal in Ulsan colours I have a feeling many more will follow. Dropping him to the bench would only let that miss fester longer.

BB: How do you see the match playing out?  Could you give us a score prediction?

DC: The Ulsan players will be eager to put things right after the heartbreak of the Shanghai loss.  Jeju will equally want to kick-start their season, but in my opinion they seem to be sapped of creavity. If Ulsan attack from kick-off and press Jeju high up the pitch, then I think it could be a fairly comfortable afternoon for the boys in blue. 

Score Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-0 Jeju United

Dan Asks, Branko Answers

DC: The Islanders have started the season poorly too with just one win in six in all competitions. What is the mood like in the Jeju camp going into this game?  

BB: I have to be honest.  The mood in the camp is quite negative.  I would even say that at this point, even though it is still very early in the season, it's not very optimistic, either.  Before the last two matchdays in the Champions League, things didn't look so bad.  An opening day draw against Seoul in the K League was not at all a bad result, but after three consecutive losses, in which the back line has looked quite sub par, the team continues to slide deeper into an early season rut.

Going into the season, scoring was going to be a question, but it is actually the back line, which was one of the best in the league last season, which is becoming an even bigger concern recently.  What is compounding both of these problems, however, is a noticeable lack of team play when they are on the pitch.  The chemistry still needs some time to develop.  It's difficult to watch when a group of players just can't seem to gel, even if it's only early days in the campaign.  At this rate, things will get worse before they get better.

DC:  Jeju made some interesting signings in the off-season. How have these new additions fared so far?

BB: Frankly speaking, the new signings have been mostly invisible.  The two new Brazilian strikers, Roberson and Tiago Marques, who were brought in the off-season to provide goals, have not done so as of yet, but what's even worse is that they have not shown well at all when out on the pitch.  Roberson still doesn't really have an idea about how to play in Jeju's system, and I'd go as far as to say he even looks lost out on the pitch.  Marques started the first Champions League match against Cerezo Osaka and made little to no impact at all.  He has yet to start in the K League, and I don't see him getting any action on Sunday at Munsu.

DC: It's been a busy few weeks for the ACL teams. The international break is probably very welcome. What do you think Jo Sung-hwan has learned about his squad during the first six games? And do you expect a full strength Jeju side on Sunday? 

BB: Looking at the first six games of the season, I would have to say that if there is one thing that Jo Sung-hwan knows about his team, it's that they have not learned how to play together.  They will need to put in a lot of work on the training ground to get things running smoothly, and get Jeju back to playing the brand of football which had made them one of the most attractive teams in the league in recent years.  I still have confidence that the team can do what it takes to turn things around and get headed in the right direction, but at the moment, they don't look as competitive as they have been in the recent past.

I can't say for sure whether or not Jeju will field a full strength squad on Sunday, as Jo has been experimenting with the lineup recently to try to find the right combination of players to stabilize Jeju's game and bring results, but that hasn't happened at all.  It would be much too risky to try too many combinations with the new faces, and so he should stick to the players from last year's squad as much as possible.

One possible injury concern is Park Jin-po, who had to leave the match in the first half against Guangzhou courtesy of an extremely hard foul which left him writhing in pain on the pitch for several minutes.  He did his best to continue, but he lasted only about another five minutes after the incident before he had to exit the proceedings.  He has been one of Jeju's more solid players thus far this season, and if he is unable to go on Sunday, it would further weaken what is already an unstable defensive unit.

DC: What are the chances of Jeju getting a result against Ulsan?

BB: The chances of Jeju getting a result against Ulsan as I see it right now, are minimal.  I've seen better football from Ulsan than I have from Jeju so far.  Ulsan has the ability to control the tempo of a match and they can score.  If Ulsan can learn to hold a lead, they could get off on a run sooner rather than later.

I feel like Jeju is still in off-season mode.  Their play don't approach match standard at the moment.  They have a lot of work to do.  While they did play well away from home at times last season, I don't see them getting all three points.  If they manage to put anything together, they will get a draw at best.

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