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Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

K League 1 Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

In undoubtedly the biggest match of the round, second-placed Ulsan Hyundai play host to league leaders Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors this Sunday evening.  Three points would send the Horangi back to the top of the table, but with no win over the Champions in the last six meetings at Munsu Stadium, the form book is not on their side. Dan Croydon previews this crucial early-season encounter for us with help from Associate editor Matt Binns.

Last Time Out

Asian Champions League Group H, Match Day 5
Ulsan Hyundai 1-0 Sydney FC
Kim Do-hoon's team ensured qualification from the "Group of Death" with a third 1-0 home victory in a row last Tuesday night. In an end-to-end encounter, both sides squandered chances before Mix Diskerud provided a moment of quality to break the deadlock on the hour. Receiving the ball 6 yards out, his neat backheel wrongfooted a static Sydney defence and nestled nicely into the corner of the net. Some neat saves from Oh Seung-hoon followed, and victory for the Horangi was sealed when Yun Young-sun cleared an effort off the line late on. Ulsan have a trip to Shanghai left before the knockout stages commence, but thanks to his side's rock solid home form, Kim Do-hoon can leave key players at home, safe in the knowledge they have already guarenteed themselves top spot.

Asian Champions League Group G, Match Day 5
Beijing Guoan 0-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
The K League Champions had a very similar night to Ulsan, as a slender victory in China on Wednesday was enough for Jeonbuk to qualify for the next round top of their group.  Kim Shin-wook got the winning goal in the first half with a trademark header. Both Kim Do-hoon and José Morais will be happy to have won their groups as it means will not meet in the next round; Jeonbuk will play either Shanghai or Kawasaki, while it'll be Urawa Reds or Beijing Guoan for Ulsan.

Previous Meetings

Whichever way you look at it, the form book is undoubtedly on Jeonbuk's side, as Ulsan have registered just one win in twelve against the Champions, and have taken just one point from the last fifteen on offer.  Jeonbuk have not lost at Munsu Stadium in their last six visits - since Kim Shin-wook and Ivan Kovacec gave the Horangi a 2-0 win back at the tail-end of the 2015 season. Of course, Jeonbuk's last game at Ulsan saw them crowned K League winners - an injury-time penalty from Lee Dong-gook rescued the point which took them over the finishing line, even before the league had split.

Team News

Much of Ulsan's early season form has been based on their defensive strength.  The partnership between off-season signings Yun Young-soon and Dave Bulthuis has been impressive, not only for its effectiveness but also for the speed at which it was formed.  So the fact that Yun is suspended for Sunday's match and Bulthuis remains doubtful with a knee injury must be of great concern for Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon.  Veteran defender Kang Min-soo will step in alongside the burly defender-turned-striker-turned-defender-again Kim Su-an in a second string partnership that has plenty of heft but could struggle against the pace of Ricardo Lopes and Moon Seon-min.

Elsewhere, Shin Jin-ho was rested for the visit of Sydney FC midweek so he could return to the lineup after scoring the opener in the East Coast Derby last weekend.  Kim Tae-hwan also missed the ACL win due to suspension, so expect him to slot back in on the wing with Park Joo-ho and Kim In-sung likely to drop to the bench.

The Adversary

Jeonbuk enter this fixture on the back of yet another hard-fought AFC Champions League victory, this time defeating Beijing Guoan 1-0 to ensure they finished top of their group. While doubts about this side's ruthlessness have persisted due to their wastefulness in front of goal, there is no denying they have managed to find the character to earn victories in their "biggest" matches, a trick they will be hoping to pull once more come this Sunday.

José Morais is expected to field a similar 4-1-4-1 line up to that which started against Beijing, though Moon Seon-min may start on the wing after Han Kyo-won left the field early with injury. Morais may even see the option to start Han Seung-gyu against his former employers in a bid to tempt footballing narrative, yet recent selections suggest that the Jeonbuk manager still favours Lee Seung-gi or Lim Sun-young in that central attacking midfield role.

Jeonbuk will be without a number of players for this match. Whilst Adriano continues to sit out with a lengthy injury, centre-back Choi Bo-kyung is not far from returning yet is unlikely to be trusted here if fit. This does cause somewhat of a headache however as first-choice centre-back Kim Min-hyeok is suspended through yellow card accumulation. It is likely José Morais will opt for Choi Chul-soon to fill the void.

One key player who may be in for a big game is goalkeeper Song Beom-keun. The youngster is the only U22 designated player playing his trade in net to have played this season and his statistics have been remarkable to say the least. As highlighted on the most recent episode of The K League United Podcast, Song has faced the most shots in the K League this season. While this may also serve as a worrying indicator about the solidity of Jeonbuk's backline, the fact he has only conceded six after ten full rounds shows that the hype that surrounds him is not exaggerated by the players in front of him, an accusation sometimes levelled at him last season. Where he has been of particular effectiveness for Jeonbuk is in terms of his distribution. The goalkeeper has some of the most accurate short and long passing stats in the league, far greater than Korean national team 'keeper Cho Hyun-woo, which is even more impressive when the number of teams who sit back against Jeonbuk are taken into consideration as he is often completing passes into crowded halves.

This attribute could be of use if Ulsan do press Jeonbuk and leave room further up the pitch for the champions to counter. Furthermore, given the pace offered by wingers Moon Seon-min and Ricardo Lopes, Ulsan should be wary of committing themselves too much to an attacking philosophy, yet they may also be encouraged to pry at the fragility of Jeonbuk's defence.

- Matthew Binns

Who To Watch


Mix Diskerud grabbed all the headlines midweek for his cheeky back-heeled finish that sent his club into the last sixteen of the ACL. "Jesus Christ", as manager Kim Do-hoon somewhat embarrassingly called Mix post-game, will be hoping to put in another big display this Sunday as he tries to cement his role as an attacking presence in this sturdy Horangi team.  The former US International has shone on the continental stage several times this year thanks to his new role higher up the pitch, but he has yet to really capture the spotlight in the K League in the way that other imports such as Cesinha or Lopes have.  If Mix is able to inspire his team to victory over the current Champions, maybe even grab another gif-worthy goal, he will surely elevate himself to true K League stardom.   

Prediction

Ulsan were unlucky to lose at Pohang last weekend, but the game highlighted yet again how much they struggle when they have to chase a game.  After taking the lead in the second half, Pohang were able to sit deep and frustrate Ulsan's attack, even though Kim Do-hoon employed both Joo Min-kyu and Junior for the last twenty minutes. Jeonbuk, on the other hand, showed that they are still capable of last-minute drama under Jose Morais with that late, late win over FC Seoul a few weeks back.

So it would appear the first goal in this game will be absolutely vital. But, with Kim Do-hoon missing some key players at the back, it is going to be tough for his team to keep a clean sheet, meaning the Ulsan coach may elect to go with a more attacking mentality than he has in recent weeks.  I certainly expect goals in this game, but it is too hard to separate these two teams at the moment, so I'll go for a score draw.

Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

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