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Preview: Gyeongnam FC vs. Ulsan Hyundai

Ulsan make the short trip to Changwon this Saturday evening to take on relegation-threatened Gyeongnam FC.  With their hosts missing several key players, Kim Do-hoon's side will be favourites to take all three points, but things are rarely that simple in this, the most exciting K League 1 title chase in years. Dan Croydon previews this South Gyeongsang Province match-up for us.   

Last Time Out

Gangwon 2-0 Gyeongnam
Gyeongnam's loss at Gangown a fortnight ago left the Red and Blacks without a point from their last three games on the road, and still winless away from home all season.  Gangwon midfielder Lee Young-jae broke the deadlock against his former employers by cooly slotting home a 78th-minute penalty. Gyeongnam centreback Lee Gwang-seon was then sent off with five minutes left on the clock after he dragged down the pacy Gangwon sub Kim Ji-hyun.

There was time for the home side to add a second, as Han Gook-young bagged a rare goal, driving a long-range effort home following a well-worked corner routine.  Gyeongnam threatened occasionally, particularly through the man they signed from Gangwon in the summer, Uros Deric. But in truth their display didn't warrant a point, as they showed again why they currently sit just three points above the drop.   

Video highlights here 

Incheon United 3-3 Ulsan Hyundai
Ulsan gave up top spot to Jeonbuk again following a shock result at lowly Incheon United, as the title chase took another twist last round.  There were shades of last season's Ulsan side, as Junior scored a goal either side of half time to put the visitors in control, only for the Horangi defence to lose concentration and let the fantastic Stefan Mugosa bag a brace of his own in the second half.  The game seemed to be headed for a draw, only for Ulsan's veteran attacker Lee Keun-ho to bail his defence out by bagging a last-minute goal to make it 2-3.

However, as the seconds ticked down, it was Incheon's talismanic Montenegrin who had the final say as he lashed home his hat-trick goal deep into stoppage time. The point was good enough to lift Incheon off the foot of the table, while Ulsan were left kicking themselves having dropped points from a winning position for the third time in as many months.

Video highlights here

Previous Meetings

Gyeongnam have not beaten Ulsan since their return to Korea's top flight in 2018.  The sides drew three times last season, then the Horangi won the last three meetings, including a 1-3 win in Changwon back in July.  The record definitely favours the Hyundai team, as Gyeongnam have just three home victories over Ulsan in their entire historythe last one came way back in the summer of 2012.

Team News

The big news in Changwon ahead of this match is the absence of Gyeongnam's entire starting backline due to suspension.  Kim Jong-pil, Lee Gwang-seon, and Woo Ju-sung have been the mainstays of Kim Jong-boo's back three this season, but they will all miss out this weekend following bookings in the loss at Gangwon. Lee, of course, went one worse and got himself sent off in that match, leaving the likes of veteran defender Kwak Tae-hwi, an Asain Champions League winner with Ulsan; Bae Seung-jin; and another former Horangi Choi Jae-soo to go up against the pace of Hwang Il-soo and Kim In-sung. The combined age of those three defenders is 105, so this is certain to be a mismatch to keep an eye on.

Gyeongnam's Kunimoto is back to full fitness and will have a big part to play in his side's ongoing relegation battle

The good news for Gyeongnam fans is the return to fitness of their Japanese playmaker Takahiro Kunimoto.  His reappearance has coincided, unsurprisingly, with a slight uptick in form for Kim Jong-boo's side.  Gyeongnam have registered home wins over both Suwon and Seongnam in recent weeks, compensating for their tragic winless run on the road and keeping them just above the relegation zone.  Ulsan will need to concentrate on keeping Kunimoto quiet if they are to cut off the supply to Uros Deric and Kim Seung-jun this Saturday.

The Adversary

Manager Kim Do-hoon will only have to contend with his own continued suspension ahead of this match.  The former striker who has over 112 K League goals to his name, will be serving the fourth of his five-match touchline ban.

It is hard to tell what exact impact Kim's absence from the dugout has had on the Horangi's performance, but with four points from their last three matches, it is safe to say that Ulsan are going through a mixed patch of form. The nature of the loss to Jeonbuk, coupled with the collapse at Incheon a fortnight ago would suggest that the team are lacking a bit of leadership when things go against them.

The good news then is that the experienced centreback Kang Min-soo will return to the side after serving a one-match ban.  His replacement for the Incheon match, Kim Su-an, struggled to cope with Stefan Mugosa's movement, but Kang should be able to use his strength and intelligence to sure up a defense that has conceded six times in two matches.

Elsewhere, Dave Bulthuis is still sidelined with a knee injury, while Aussie defender Jason Davidson is yet to make his debut following some injury problems of his own.  Mix Diskerud is also struggling to find his way back into the team, leaving Junior Negrao as the only foreign player likely to line up for Ulsan this weekend.

Lee Dong-kyeong made his debut for South Korea against Georgia last Thursday 

Finally, fans of the Korean national team are sure to be looking out for Ulsan's U22 midfielder Lee Dong-kyeong after he made his international debut in the 2-2 draw with Georgia last week.  The youngster made a telling contribution in Hwang Ui-jo's second goal but was also praised for the all-round quality of his play in the twenty-odd minutes he was given in Istanbul.  Lee returns to Ulsan along with fellow Korean squad members Kim Seung-gyu, Kim Bo-kyung and Kim Tae-hwan.

Prediction

It is hard to look past Gyeongnam's poor record against Ulsan, and the fact they will be without three key defenders.  Kim Jong-boo used the last two transfer windows to strengthen the attacking portion of his squad, welcoming the likes of Uros Deric and Luc Castaignos, but he must surely regret not signing a quality center-back to replace international defender Park Ji-soo who moved to China at the end of 2018.

Ulsan fell into bad habits at Incheon last time out, dropping deeper and deeper, but getting caught square when it came to the crunch.  However, there are not many K League strikers out there who can finish quite so inevitably as Stefan Mugosa, so perhaps we should not write off Ulsan's title credentials quite yet. So far this campaign Kim Do-hoon's men have more often than not followed up disappointment with an excellent win (see the 5-1 over Sangju after losing at Jeonbuk), so I expect, with my totally biased fingers crossed, that the Horangi will get back to winning ways in Changwon this Saturday evening.

Dan's Prediction: Gyeongnam 1-4 Ulsan Hyundai



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