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Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Sangju Sangmu

Last year's runners-up, Ulsan Hyundai, get their K League 1 campaign underway in this Saturday's early kick-off, when they welcome the military men of Sangju Sangmu to Munsu Stadium. The Horangi (Tigers) have strengthened well in the off-season and look poised to mount another title challenge, but Sangju will be dark horses this year, having been handed some considerably talented individuals. Can Ulsan get off to a winning start? Dan Croydon previews this intriguing encounter.

Match: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Sangju Sangmu
Venue: Munsu Football Stadium
Kickoff: Saturday, May 9th, 2020; 14:00 KST

Last Time Out

Ulsan Hyundai 1-1 FC Tokyo 
(Feb 11th, Asian Champions League, Group F) 

Ulsan's 2020 season actually began almost three months ago in the opening round of this year's Asian Champions League. The Horangi squeezed in a draw with J League runners-up FC Tokyo on a chilly February night, just before COVID-19 took hold of the Korean peninsula.  Kim Do-hoon put out a slightly odd line up that night, with first-choice goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, and centre-half Dave Bulthuis left on the bench.

Big money signing Bjorn Johnsen did make his debut, albeit in a somewhat unfamiliar wide role.  The eleven that took the field that night are unlikely to the same as those who start this weekend, although the new fluid formation Kim employed, switching smoothly from a 4-1-4-1 to a 3-4-3, is one to look out for in the opening weeks of the domestic season. 

Match Highlights (video)   

Previous Meetings

Ulsan have emerged winners in four of their last five games with Sangju Sangmu, including a 5-1 thrashing at home towards the end of last summer.  However, the army team are often the quicker starters, as shown by their two notable early season wins at Ulsan's Munsu Stadium in recent years: a 0-1 victory on Match Day 3 of 2017, followed by a 0-2 win on Match Day 2, 2018.  Overall though, the Horangi have had much the better of this fixture, as they have won 18, drawn six, and lost just three of their home matches with Sangju.

Team News

Expect Ulsan manager, Kim Do-hoon, to hand out several league debuts this Saturday.  High profile signings - winger Lee Chung-yong, target man forward Bjorn Johnsen, and goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo - should all make the teamsheet, alongside the returning youth product, Jeong Seung-hyun, who re-signed with the Horangi after several years and one Champions League winners medal with Kashima Antlers.

Kim has a few tough decisions to make in midfield, as he is likely to opt to start under-22 player Lee Sang-heon in order to guarantee his full three substitutions (see here for information on the K League's U-22 rule and others).

This means any one of the three experienced campaigners, Yoon Bitgaram, Shin Jin-ho, and Koh Myeong-jin, will have to move down to the bench. Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see whether Kim opts to start two-time club top-scorer, Junior Negrao, in a central role with Bjorn Johnsen moving out to the left, or if he hands the big Norwegian forward the lone striker role.

Ulsan's Predicted Starting XI

The Adversary

Sangju Sangmu
Sangju are one of the more unique teams in Asian football, as they are made up entirely of loanees from other K League teams who are currently performing their 20-month long military service.

This means manger Kim Tae-wan has no say over who comes and goes from the club - and come and go they certainly do: 17 members of the squad that took Sangju to a seventh place finish and a record number of points 2019 have now left, to be replaced by a new batch of 16 fresh recruits.

To add to the disruption, Sangju start the season already knowing they will be relegated to Korean football's second tier, K League 2. The military club have decided to move out of Sangju to set themselves up in a new, as yet undisclosed, location.  Sangju the city will retain a football team, but it will have to be a newly founded citizen-owned outfit that will start in the league below.

Amongst the players sporting their new buzzcuts for Sangju this weekend will be 2019 title-winning duo Moon Seon-min and Kwon Kyung-won of Jeonbuk Hyundai. Moon will probably be Sangju's main attacking threat this season; the mercurial winger has had a remarkable couple of years, scoring 14 goals with Incheon United in 2018, before earning himself a move to Jeonbuk last year. In his first year in Jeonju, Moon led the league in assists, earning himself a place in the Best XI. Now at 27 years of age, Moon has opted to serve out his military service, and Kim Tae-wan is likely to lean on him heavily in what is sure to be a strange season at Sangju.

Sangju have also been handed a few standout youth recruits, as for the first time ever, the military club must also abide by the U-22 rule. Under-23 national team striker and product of Ulsan's prolific youth system, Oh Se-hun, is likely to start up front against his parent club. It will be a big moment for the 21-year old, as he has previously played just one minute of professional football at his boyhood stadium, having come on as an injury-time substitute in a 2-1 victory over Pohang way back in May, 2018.

Who To Watch

Lee Chung-yong (winger)
Ulsan Hyundai succeeded where others failed in this year's off-season, when they announced the return to Korean shores of one of the country's modern footballing icons, Lee Chung-yong. The "Blue Dragon" joins the K League giants from VfL Bochum in what the club has called "the biggest transfer coup in its history." It is such as shame then that the ex-Premier League star will make his Ulsan debut in front of rows and rows of empty seats.

Lee will likely take on the role vacated by last season's MVP Kim Bo-kyung, ostensibly playing on the right wing, but cutting inside to link up play and creating space for nippy fullback Kim Tae-hwan on the overlap.


The backdrop to this game could not be stranger. Not only will the stands be empty, as the season begins under the cloud of COVID-19, but one of the teams already knows their fate is sealed this year, no matter what they do on the field. Welcome to 2020 I guess!

Putting all the weirdness aside though, Ulsan should be able to take all three points this weekend. On paper their squad is perhaps even stronger than last season, with two quality options in pretty much every position.  Sangju do have some stand-out individuals, but their youthful attack lacks experience, and it is bound to take some time for the new squad to gel.  I predict a fairly comfortable home win, with the one small caveat - this is Schroedinger's fooball; anything is possible behind closed doors.

Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-0 Sangju Sangmu

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