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Ulsan HD vs Pohang Steelers Preview: A Donghaean clash to open 2024

In typical K League 1 fashion, the defending league champions and FA Cup champions will clash head-to-head to open the new season. Ulsan HD, under a new name and rebrand, will host the Donghaean Derby, one of Korea's most storied and heated footballing rivalries, when they welcome Pohang Steelers to Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium. Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo previews the matchup.

Overview & Match Information

Fixture: Ulsan HD vs. Pohang Steelers
Competition: 2024 Hana Bank K League 1 Round 1
Venue: Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium
Date: Friday March 1, 2024, 14:00 KST

If you're not already familiar with the tension between these two sides, you've missed a lot. In 157 meetings all-time, the series is split 66-56-61, with Pohang having the slight edge. There has been a lot. Title races and duels on the youth and senior levels are always heated between the two sides. 

A last-minute goal in the last round of the 2013 season secured Pohang's title at Munsu, with Ulsan finishing second. A Kim Seung-gyu (yes, the goalkeeper) throw-in mishap in the last round of the 2019 season at the Ulsan Stadium resulted in Pohang preventing Ulsan from winning the title, the trophy instead diverting course to Jeonju.


Among the goalscorers on that day in 2019 were Wanderson and Heo Yong-jun. Both players have left and rejoined the club since then, but are again first-team regulars at Pohang. Kim In-sung was on that Ulsan team, too. Sim Sang-min started for Pohang, but has changed shirts and joined Ulsan for this season.

A reunion, of sorts, of old teammates, new rivals and close friends in Park Tae-ha and Hong Myung-bo should make this a fun one.

Team News

Both sides will likely have absences in this match due to injury and fitness.

For the hosts, Lee Chung-yong is having fitness issues. Two of their new signings, Matheus Sales and Kelvin, are also doubtful. 


It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect Pohang to line up similarly to how they did in their two AFC Champions League matches against Jeonbuk. Oberdan is still quite not ready, recovering from an MCL injury last season, while Jung Jae-hee, Baek Sung-dong and Kim Jong-woo are also not ready to return yet. Oberdan has returned to training, but will likely not feature in the derby.

Head-to-Head

In 2023, Pohang were winless against Ulsan Hyundai. In four matches the Horang-i recorded two wins and two draws, outscoring their rivals 6-4. In the most entertaining of the four meetings, Pohang saw a 2-0 lead erased thanks to second-half strikes from Joo Min-kyu and Valeri Qazaishvili. 

The highlights to that match can be seen below.


The meeting will be the first between new Pohang manager Park Tae-ha and Hong Myung-bo. Both managers enjoyed playing careers at Pohang, with the former being a one-club man. 

Hong and Park are said to be best friends. At the 2024 K League 1 Media Day, the two shared playful jabs at one another. Hong mentioned that Park brought up that the condition of the pitch may be a concern, to which he asked if the pitch was what he should be worrying about.

Park brought up that he still remembers the model and license plate number of Hong's car while the two friends spent time together in Pohang. A Daewoo Espero, with the plate reading 1665. It's clear to see the two have fond memories of playing with each other, but Park sent his own playful jab, telling Hong, "Your place is not forever," about Ulsan's standing atop K League 1 for two years in a row. 


What to Watch

Park Tae-ha's style of football


In two AFC Champions League matches it was clear to see that this is not the same Pohang team that was lauded for playing "Steel-ki Taka". That brand of football was played with Stanislav Iljutcenko and Aleksandar Paločević, two players who have reunited with their former manager Kim Gi-dong at FC Seoul.

Park lines up his team in a formation that can best be described as a 3-4-3, but is flexible enough to switch to four at the back with a 4-4-2 or five in the middle with a 3-5-2. Attacking chances are created via early releases from the wide midfielders, usually Wanderson or Eo Jeong-won, or the outside center backs, usually Park Chan-yong or Lee Dong-hee. With two towering attackers in Jorge Luiz and Lee Ho-jae, the aim seems to be to find the head of one of those strikers and get it to the feet of a pacy, crafty attacker such as Wanderson, Hong Yun-sang or Heo Yong-jun. 

It will be interesting to see how Ulsan go up against this style of Pohang football, and even more interesting to see how the defensive line of Pohang deals with the pace and size of Ulsan's attack, which sports Um Won-sang, Martin Ádám and Lee Dong-geong.

Prediction

Barring a 2013 or 2019-esque nightmare, this will likely be an Ulsan win. They have an attack that could outscore any team in Asia, and a defense that would make the national team jealous.

In front of their home crowd and on quest for a third straight K League trophy, a feat pulled off just three times (Ilhwa Chunma 1993-95, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma 2001-03, Jeonbuk Hyundai 2017-21), Ulsan will undoubtedly want to start 2024 off on the right foot. 

Expect a goal to come assisted from Um Won-sang, if not scored. The pacy winger will look to take advantage of Wanderson pushing forward from his left-midfielder or left-back position and get the ball to Ádám or Joo.







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