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Preview: Pohang Steelers vs Busan IPark

Pohang Steelers, Pohang, Song Min-kyu

Tipped to improve on two consecutive fourth placed finishes, Pohang finally kick off their 2020 campaign against Busan IPark, back in K League 1 after four years in the second tier. Can the Steelers pick up where they left off in 2019, or will their south coast adverseries upset the odds on their return to the big stage?

via Soccerway

Pre-season

Pohang have played three friendlies since the Korean government allowed pre-season games to resume on April 23rd. The Steelers suffered a 1-0 loss to K3 League side Gyeongju FC, sandwiched between two wins over Busan Transportation Corporation FC, also of the third tier. In their last clash behind closed doors on Saturday afternoon, Pohang put out a first XI which was not revealed to the press, although it was reported that attacking midfielder Aleksandar Paločević and Colombian Manuel Palacios got onto the scoresheet in a 2-0 win.

There are signs that Busan have not abandoned their attacking principles for a higher division, as IPark outscored their opponents 45-10 in ten pre-season victories. Most recently, Busan defeated K3 League side Gimhae City 5-1, playing a different group of players in each half as coach Cho Duk-jae considers his starting options.

Previous Meetings

This is the first meeting between the two sides for three years, who last faced off in the fourth round of the 2017 FA Cup. Choi Seung-in grabbed the only goal as IPark shocked higher level opposition, Pohang becoming the first of four K League 1 sides Busan defeated on their run to the final.

The two sides have played 150 times. Pohang's record against Busan is 49 wins, 47 losses and 54 draws.

Team News

Pohang come into this game rested and with no injury concerns. After his departure for Al Ittihad, Wanderson's 15 goals and 9 assists will need to be replaced from the right wing, a selection headache for manager Kim Gi-dong. New signing Manuel Palacios will attempt to fill the void, having netted 11 goals for Anyang in K League 2 last campaign - including three against Busan.

Kim Sang-won led K League 2 with 10 assists in 2019 and will compete with Song Min-kyu for a place on the left wing, whilst Australian international Brandon O'Neill - who made his debut for the Socceroos in Busan last June - could start alongside Jeonbuk loanee Choi Young-jun in a central midfield role. Otherwise, Pohang have a settled side and will be largely unchanged from their 4-1 demolition of Ulsan Hyundai on 2019's final day.



Target man Lee Jeong-hyeop was a key player in Busan's promotion campaign but rarely featured in pre-season, making his only appearance off the bench against Gimhae on Saturday. If Lee is considered unfit to start, Gustavo Vintecinco will make his debut having impressed with nine goals for a limited Ansan Greeners side last season.

The K League's U22 rule stipulates that Busan must have one player under the age of 22 in the starting lineup in order to make three substitutions. This presents a problem for Cho Duk-jae, since regular starters Lee Dong-jun and Kim Jin-kyu both turned 23 in the off-season. Unproven 19 year old Kwon Hyeok-gyu has featured considerably in pre-season, and the versatile youth international could start in midfield or on the left wing after catching the eye with four goals against Daegu University in February. Another option within the squad would be U-20 World Cup runner-up Lee Sang-jun, most comfortable at right back but capable of playing on the right wing.

Kim Jin-kyu and Rômulo were almost undroppable as an attacking midfield pair last season, however one could be sacrificed for the defensive stability of Lee Gyu-seong, who impressed in a holding midfield role at Sangju last season.

A much changed back four will see only one survivor from Busan's playoff final victory over Gyeongnam, right back Kim Moon-hwan. Former QPR left back Yun Suk-young and Uzbek international Dostonbek Tursonov are set to make their debuts alongside three time K League champion Kang Min-soo, who will lead the side as captain. 35 year old Kim Ho-jun should make his debut between the sticks after moving south from Gangwon, where he was the established number one last season.



What To Watch

Under the tutelage of Kim Ki-dong, Pohang are most comfortable playing a counter attacking brand of football, patiently waiting for an opportunity to break up the opposition attack then ruthlessly charging up the pitch in numbers, spearheaded by former Duisburg striker Stanislav Iljutcenko. Pohang recorded notable victories over top sides at the end of 2019, best exemplifying the clinical nature of their football. A 3-0 away victory over FC Seoul was followed up with a 4-1 Donghaean derby victory at Ulsan Hyundai, as Pohang prevented their local rivals from winning the league on the final day.

Pohang Steelers, Pohang
 Pohang celebrate the 4-1 victory over Ulsan with their travelling fans

Whilst the Steelers showed they could mix it with the very best sides in the division, their inability to unpick the division's lesser sides ultimately cost them an AFC Champions League spot, as FC Seoul pipped Pohang on Goals Scored. They will need to hit the ground running if they are to improve on last season's fourth placed finish - which means developing a gameplan that can break down weaker defences. Pohang's loss of Wanderson could force the side to lean heavily on the passing abilities of Aleksandar Paločević and young starlet Song Min-kyu, who possess enough quality to supply physical forward Iljutcenko and the direct minded Palacios in the 18 yard box.



After dropping to the second tier in 2015, Busan has rebuilt their squad around a core of young players that are more than ready to test themselves at the highest domestic level. Busan's academy has produced Korean international defender Kim Moon-hwan, winger Lee Dong-jun and box-to-box midfielder Kim Jin-kyu, who along with classy Brazilian playmaker Rômulo and hometown enforcer Park Jong-woo have formed a telepathic understanding in central midfield.

Busan IPark, Kim Moon-hwan, Romulo, Kim Jin-kyu
Busan's youthful core - Kim Moon-hwan (33), Rômulo (10) and Kim Jin-kyu (23)

IPark played an expansive attacking brand of football last season, becoming the top scorers in all of Korea. This proved exciting for neutrals but came at the expense of defensive stability - Busan shipped as many goals as the K League 2's second worst team, Daejeon, and were particularly vulnerable to counter attacks. Though the south coast side has made moves to shore up their defensive personnel, coach Cho Duk-jae may need to adapt his tactics to provide more protection for the backline, especially against stronger K League 1 offences such as Pohang. By sitting deeper and electing to hit the opposition on the counter, IPark could utilise the speed and guile of Lee Dong-jun on breakaway opportunities.

Who To Watch

It is no coincidence that Pohang's improved form in the second half of 2019 coincided with the introduction of Aleksandar Paločević into the side. Since joining from Portuguese side C.D. Nacional, the Serbian contributed five goals and four assists in 16 games, with a penchant for making late runs into the opposition box. The 26 year old is composed in possession and capable of dribbling out of tight spots when closely marked, whilst possessing a good range of passing - particularly when it comes to through balls that can penetrate opposition backlines.




Busan's attack will be led by Nike's poster boy Lee Dong-jun, who had a remarkable breakout season with 13 goals and 7 assists in 2019 to take the K League 2 MVP crown. A key member of the Korean Olympic squad that won the AFC U-23 Championship in January, Lee is a tricky winger that possesses excellent movement off the ball and brilliant composure with it. IPark are likely to be under the collar for long periods against Pohang, and so will need Lee's lightning quick pace and killer instincts in the final third as they look to hit the Steelers on the break.



FNR

Prediction

Busan will be highly motivated to make waves on their return to the highest stage, but Pohang's experience and quality in midfield should be enough to unlock the promoted side's new look defence.

Pohang Steelers 3-1 Busan IPark

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