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Preview: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Pohang Steelers

The K League fixture planners get their wish this weekend, as the fourth East Coast Derby of the season between bitter rivals Ulsan Hyundai and Pohang Steelers holds the key to deciding who will be crowned K League 1 Champions 2019.  Ulsan need only to avoid defeat to lift their first league trophy in fourteen years, but Pohang will be focused on victory, as they look to deny their neighbours their moment of glory.  Ulsan columnist Daniel Croydon previews the climactic final match of a memorable season. 

Match: Ulsan Hyundai vs. Pohang Steelers
Venue: Ulsan Sports Complex Stadium
Kickoff: Sunday, December 1st, 2019; 15:00 KST

Last Time Out

Ulsan Hyundai 1-1 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Last Saturday Ulsan were unable to get the win that would have given them the title with a week to spare, as they put in a nervous but determined performance against the experienced reigning K League 1 Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

A sellout crowd of over 19,000 saw home team Ulsan battle to a draw with second-placed Jeonbuk
After a cagey first forty-five in which Jeonbuk created the majority of the chances, the game came to life early in the second half when Kim Jin-su put the visitors in the lead with a sublime volley from twenty yards out.  The goal kicked Ulsan into life though, and they got an all-important equaliser through the most unlikely of sources — Dave Bultuis heading in his first-ever K League goal to ensure that the Horangi hold their destiny in their own hands going into a momentous final day.
Video Highlights here  

FC Seoul 0-3 Pohang Steelers
With Asian Champions League qualification on the line, FC Seoul really needed a result against a Pohang side with little left to play for this season.  The home side continued their poor run of results though as a brace from midfielder Paločević and a fourteenth goal of the season for Wanderson gave the Steelers their first post-split victory.
Video Highlights here 

Previous Meetings

Of all the rivalries in the K League, the East Coast Derby has to be the most tightly contested. Ulsan have the narrowest of edges when it comes to the overall record with twenty-one wins to Pohang's twenty.  When it comes to matches in Ulsan, again little separates the two teams, with the Horangi registering ten wins to the Steeler's nine. Importantly though, Ulsan have not lost at home to Pohang on the last nine occasions.

Ulsan emerged victorious the last time they hosted Pohang; it finished 1-0 with a goal from captain Kang Min-soo the difference between the sides.  The Horangi also won in Pohang on the final day of last season; goals from Lee Keun-ho, Lee Chang-yong, and Junior helped the away side to a 3-1 victory.

Ulsan know this will be no easy game though, as Pohang are the only team to have beaten them twice this campaign.  Both wins came in Pohang, both by a score of 2-1.   The most recent East Coast Derby took place on the final day of the regular season when Ulsan let slip a one-nil lead with three minutes to go. Serbian midfielder Aleksandar Paločević equalised from the spot with his first goal in Pohang colours, before Lee Gwang-hyeok struck from distance deep into injury time to snatch all three points for the Steelers.

Ulsan are bound to be wary of a repeat performance this weekend, although late drama seems to be ingrained in this, one of the oldest and fiercest of Korean football rivalries.

Team News

Speaking of late drama, two of the Ulsan players who lost to Pohang on the final day of the 2013 season are still with the Horangi.  Kim Seung-gyu will take his place in goal, but central defender Kang Min-soo may have to settle for a place on the bench again after the excellent performances of Yoon Young-sun and Dave Bulthuis against Jeonbuk last Saturday.

 Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon faces a bigger decision, however, as suspensions will deny him of right-back Kim Tae-hwan and midfielder Mix Diskerud.  There is direct cover for Kim with the experienced, if less mobile, Jeong Dong-ho likely to slot into the back four, but the loss of Mix in the middle is bound to cause the Horangi gaffer a few more problems.

Joo Min-kyu has made fourteen appearances off the bench this season, but he may start this Sunday
The most like-for-like replacement, Shin Jin-ho, has not featured since the start of October after twisting his knee awkwardly against Gangwon.  This leaves Kim Do-hoon with a choice between moving Park Joo-ho up into defensive midfield, or adding attacker Joo Min-kyu to the midfield and asking Kim Bo-kyung to play deeper.  We may see both combinations at some point during the ninety, but whichever player gets the nod to start the match will give us some insight into Kim Do-hoon's overall gameplan. 

FIFA Preview


The Adversary

Pohang's excellent away win in Seoul last weekend papered over the cracks of what has been a pretty miserable season on the road for the Steelers. Kim Gi-dong's side have taken just eighteen points from eighteen away games, which is the worst record in the top half of the split — indeed only Jeju and Gyeongnam have fewer points on the road this year.

That being said, the Steelers have had a very decent second half to this campaign, although it has come too late to challenge for ACL qualification.  Pohang have suffered just one defeat in eleven games — a 3-0 drubbing away to Jeonbuk in the first game of the split.  Since then they have drawn at home to Daegu and Gangwon before that surprising victory over third-placed Seoul.

Pohang's versatile Brazilain Wanderson has had a superb season, but credit for the team's change in fortune has to be shared with the summer additions of Paločević and Iljutcenko.  Both settled quickly and contributed some key goals, so Ulsan would be smart to single them out for some special attention this weekend.

First-choice defender Ha Chang-rae will miss Sunday after receiving his tenth yellow of the season at FC Seoul
Like his Ulsan counterpart, Pohang's Kim Gi-dong is missing a key player after center-back Ha Chang-rae picked up yet another yellow card last time out.  Bae Seul-gi will most likely replace Ha in defensive partnership with Pohang's only surviving member of the 2013 title-winning team, 36-year-old Kim Kwang-seok.   

Prediction

This game takes place six years to the day after Pohang Steelers snatched the K League 1 title from Ulsan's grasp with the last kick of the 2013 season.  The scenario for the Horangi that day was practically the same as it is this weekend — if they could avoid defeat to their local rivals, the trophy would be theirs.  Pohang cannot win the title this Sunday — indeed the best they can hope for is to equal last season's fourth-place finish. But the prospect of denying Ulsan silverware on the last day of the season is bound to be more than enough motivation.

That being said, despite not being able to perform as well as we all know they can last weekend, Ulsan showed the spirit and determination to get the result when it really mattered.  Their temporary home at the Ulsan Sports Complex has proven to be a fortress for them in the second half of the campaign, as they are unbeaten in all ten games they have played there, with seven wins and just three draws.

The hosts will be nervous, knowing they are so close to making history, but with another sellout crowd behind them, and characters like Dave Bulthuis, Kim Bo-kyung, and Park Yong-woo to spur them on, I believe Ulsan can and will lift the K League 1 trophy come Sunday evening.   

Dan's Prediction: Ulsan Hyundai 2-0 Pohang Steelers



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