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Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

The season reaches a crescendo this Saturday when Ulsan Hyundai take on Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in ninety minutes that could decide the destination of this year's K League 1 trophy.  A win for the Horangi would give them their first title since 2005, while a draw would leave them needing just a point from their final day clash with Pohang. Meanwhile, three points for José Morais' Jeonbuk would put them firmly in the driving seat going into the final round of fixtures.  Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon previews this climactic encounter for us.

Match: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Venue: Ulsan Sports Complex Stadium
Kickoff: Saturday, November 23rd, 2019; 15:00 KST

Last Time Out

FC Seoul 0-1 Ulsan Hyundai
Kim Do-hoon's relentless Ulsan made it three wins from three in the Final Round, but were made to work hard against a solid FC Seoul.  In an enthralling cup final-like atmosphere, the momentum swung to and fro until Kim Bo-kyung finally broke the deadlock on 80 mins with a beautifully placed freekick.  Ulsan goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu pulled off a string of key saves to protect the Horangi's lead while Hwang Il-soo missed a chance to seal the tie late on.

Video highlights: here

Daegu FC 0-2 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Jeonbuk responded to Ulsan's earlier victory with a highly impressive display of composure at a packed DGB Arena.  With six points separating them from top spot, it was vital that José Morais' men took all three points to keep their title dream alive, and they did just that with goals from Lee Dong-gook and Ricardo Lopes either side of half time. That second goal from Lopes may prove to be vital, as Jeonbuk now have more goals scored than Ulsan, meaning a win for them on Saturday would put Jeonbuk's destiny in their own hands.

Video highlights: here


Ricardo Lopes salutes the traveling fans after he doubled Jeonbuk's lead at Daegu FC


Previous Meetings

It's neck and neck in the Hyundai Derby so far this season with a win apiece and a draw from the three regular-season matches.  Jeonbuk took first place off Ulsan back in August with a resounding 3-0 home win just a month after the two sides had drawn 1-1 in Jeonju. The Horangi won the only game played in Ulsan so far this year — a 2-1 victory back in May.

Last year's title was decided in this exact fixture — a 2-2 draw with a last-minute penalty scored by Lee Dong-gook sending the visiting fans into raptures. The fact all this took place before the league split shows Jeonbuk's dominance last campaign, and how far Ulsan have progressed this year.
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Overall though, Jeonbuk have had the better of this match-up, winning twenty-eight of the sixty-five meetings, compared to Ulsan's seventeen.  However, things are a little tighter when Ulsan are at home; Jeonbuk have twelve wins to Ulsan's ten, with the points being shared on eleven occasions.

Team News

Manager Kim Do-hoon has pretty much a full squad to pick from for this, the most important game in his three years at Ulsan. Don't expect too many surprises in terms of tactics, with Kim sticking to his 4-1-4-1 formation all season, regardless of the opposition. Top scorer Junior Negrao returns from the suspension that sidelined him for the win at FC Seoul, and he will almost certainly lead the Horangi attack, supported by U22 midfielder Lee Dong-gyeong who is back to full fitness after a month out injured.

Dutch defender Dave Bulthuis has had an outstanding first season in the K League1
Ulsan's big Dutch defender, Dave Bulthuis, is set to face Jeonbuk for the first time.  The ex-Nuernberg and Heerenveen man has had an outstanding first season in Korea. Had he not missed several months through injury, the Horangi may already have lifted the K League 1 trophy. Indeed, Ulsan conceded just twelve goals in the seventeen league games Bulthuis started, but let in twenty-two in the nineteen games he missed.


The Adversary

The big news for Jeonbuk is the absence of the K League's top assist-maker, Moon Seon-min, after he picked up his third booking of the campaign in the win over Daegu.  After joining from Incheon United last winter, the tricky winger has been an integral part of Jeonbuk's success, having contributed ten goals and setting up ten more.  His suspension is certainly a blow for manager Morais.

The onus then will fall on Ricardo Lopes to provide Jeonbuk's main attacking threat; the Brazilian already has a pair of goals against Ulsan this year.  Alongside him, former Pohang stalwart Kim Seung-dae would no doubt relish an opportunity to dent Ulsan's title ambitions, but he has struggled to find his way into José Morais' side,  as has Aussie attacker Bernie Ibini.  That means quadragenarian Lee Dong-gook could go the full ninety as he searches for the goal that would take him into double figures for the eleventh season running.

Elsewhere, Jeonbuk have four players returning from midweek international duty: left-back Kim Jin-su played every minute of the games against Lebanon and Brazil, while fellow defenders Lee Yong and Kwon Kyung-won saw action in the former fixture, but were rested for the latter.  Meanwhile, goalkeeper Song Bum-keun spent the last week in Dubai on a friendly tour with the Olympic U23 squad.

What To Watch: Title Redemption 

This year's title showdown promises to be remembered alongside other recent classics — Ulsan's 2013 collapse against Pohang, and Jeonbuk's final day loss to FC Seoul in 2016. For the many current Ulsan and Jeonbuk players that featured in those games, Saturday represents a golden opportunity to put the title heartbreak firmly behind them.

From the Horangi team that came within a minute of lifting the Big K trophy six years ago, only goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu and captain Kang Min-soo are with the club now; Kim rejoined Ulsan from Vissel Kobe in the summer with sights set on closing some unfinished business in the Korean top flight.  Lee Yong and Choi Bo-kyung lined up for Ulsan in 2013 too, but both could turn spoilers this weekend as they now wear the green of Jeonbuk. Meanwhile, two more players who could feature for Jeonbuk on Saturday, Kim Seung-dae and Ko Moo-yeol, could heap more misery on Ulsan, as both featured for Pohang in that most memorable of K League finales.

Kim Seung-gyu's breakout 2013 season ended in a devastating last-minute title loss to rivals Pohang. Now back with the Horangi after four years in Japan, Korea's No. 1 gets another shot at the title this weekend.

Jeonbuk have their own title-decider demons to contend with thanks to a final day loss to FC Seoul back in 2016. Seven squad members from that day are still with Jeonbuk: Shin Hyung-min, Choi Chul-soon, Cho Sung-hwan, Park Won-jae, Ricardo Lopes, Lee Dong-gook, and Ko Moo-yeol; while Kim Bo-kyung and Kim Chang-soo, who also featured in that match, will be hoping to put one over on their old teammates as they pull on the blue stripes of Ulsan this weekend.

Prediction

So we have the team with the best home record hosting the team with the best away record, the two most miserly defenses facing the two most prolific attacks, the rock versus the hard place, Norris meets Van Damme.

Matches like these often come down to the finest of margins.  Will Ulsan stumble at the final hurdle yet again?  Is Jeonbuk's steely clench on the title a thing of the past under Morais? I really don't know.  My heart says it is Ulsan's turn, and my head says they are the superior team.  But I know better than to bet against the Big Green Machine in this kind of game. So I'll stay away from a prediction this once and instead rock gently back and forth with my fingers crossed from now until the final whistle.


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