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5 Team K League players who could flourish against Atleti

Spanish giants Atlético Madrid will begin their pre-season preparations in Seoul this Thursday. They face Team K League, a squad made of, mostly, the best players in Korea's top flight. 

The summer invitational game returns and this time 11-time La Liga champions Atlético Madrid provide the opposition. Diego Simeone's side finished 3rd last season, 11 points behind champions Barcelona. This is Atleti's first trip to South Korea and fans are clearly excited; the game sold-out instantly.

Atlético Madrid announced their squad hours before boarding the plane to Seoul. (Image: https://twitter.com/Atleti)

Team K League will be managed by current Ulsan Hyundai boss Hong Myung-bo. Hong led the Tigers to their first championship in nearly two decades last season and they look on course to go back-to-back.


Hong will have 22 players at his disposal. Fans voted for the first 11 names and then Hong selected 11 more to complete his squad. Every one of the 12 K League clubs is represented at least once. There are no second-tier players and, crucially, with no top-flight games this weekend, the management team shouldn't be hampered by specific club demands.

Having missed out on tickets to see Team K League versus Tottenham Hotspur last summer, this is my first opportunity to see the representative team. Of the 22 selected, these are the five I'm looking forward to seeing.


Joo Min-kyu


The sentimental choice. At 33 years of age, Ulsan's striker is unlikely to get more chances like this. A late bloomer, he has notched over 130 league goals in K Leagues 1 and 2, but the big man has yet to win an international cap. New boss Jurgen Klinsmann opted against rewarding Joo a deserved appearance in any of his first four games, so you'd have to assume the chance has gone.

Thursday's sell-out versus Spanish giants Atletico Madrid, who won La Liga as recently as 2020-21, will be watched by 66,704 at Seoul World's Cup Stadium, and millions more at home. Joo recently scored the winner in the Donghae-an Derby, placing him joint-first in the goalscoring charts, with 11 from 23 games.

Still, Joo will get a crack at AFC Champions League football this autumn and with Ulsan Hyundai in a commanding position at the top of K League 1, he is odds-on to add a first title to his list of honors. He'll certainly fancy the scrap against an Atletico back-line that consists of Montenegrin Stefan Savić, Chelsea legend César Azpilicueta, and new signing Çağlar Söyüncü. 

During the fan voting process, Joo picked up 43,056 votes, good enough for sixth overall.

Joo Min-kyu wheels away in celebration after scoring the only goal against Pohang Steelers earlier this month.

Bae Jun-ho


One of two Daejeon Hana Citizen stars on this list, you could be excused for thinking the editorial department put a gun to my head. But despite fervent support for Citizen in some quarters at K League United, Bae's inclusion is a no-brainer. And, on recent form, he could tear it up on Thursday.

Born a year after the World Cup was held in Korea, the 19-year-old was part of the recent U-20 edition. In Argentina, Bae was instrumental in helping Korea reach the semi-finals, where they eventually lost to Italy 2-1. He was in and out of the team, but played in all but one game, scoring once.

Since returning, he has featured regularly in Daejeon's line-up, scoring his first goal of the season in the 1-0 win over Daegu at the weekend. The attacking midfielder couldn't have picked a better moment to hit top form, and he was generally outstanding that day, displaying great strength and balance throughout the game. He was, unsurprisingly, named in the Best 11 for the week. The future really is bright.


Bae collected 42,370 votes from K League fans.

Bae Jun-ho produced a man-of-the-match performance at the weekend.

Lee Chang-geun


Yes, I know what you're thinking, but bear with me. Lee, with just one international cap to his name, is either really unlucky or there's plenty of serious competition for the jersey at national level. Ulsan's Jo Hyeon-woo was selected by the coaches as the second keeper for the match, and who could deny him the call-up after another solid season for the champions.

However, Lee is making his debut at this level whereas Jo started the 2019 and 2022 against Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur. Jo has also been part of the last two World Cups with the South Korean national team, so Lee just feels like a new name on this grand stage. And that he has risen to this level on the back of a solid K League career makes it interesting. 

The keeper has had some dodgy moments this season, notably against Suwon Bluewings when a blunder from Fejsal Mulić's shot potentially cost his team 3 points. But he was utterly brilliant the week before, somehow rescuing a point for Daejeon on the road in Seoul. Whatever he cost them that night versus Suwon, he has more than made up for it.

If you don't want to take my word for it, an enormous 52,160 voted for Lee, second most on the team. 

Lee Chang-geun will be hoping to impress against Atleti's formidable attackers on Thursday.

Na Sang-ho


There were plenty of names to consider (hello, Cesinha) but at 26, Na still has time to put himself in the shop window for a move to Europe or further abroad. Unlike, say, Bae, he picked the wrong time to have an off day. Last weekend, Na rifled a penalty kick at Incheon United's Kim Dong-heon, who deflected the shot onto the crossbar.

However, for much of the season, Na has been one of FC Seoul's (and K League's) best performers. He has scored 11 of Seoul's 37 goals and assisted 3 others. No one else comes close to his output for the team ranked third by the end of July. 

The diminutive Na is unquestionably two-footed with good ball control, balance, and crossing. It'll be interesting to see if he lines up in midfield, upfront, or behind the central striker. If he lines up anywhere in midfield, he'll be surrounded by some unbelievable talent. Legendary Atleti captain Koke is edging towards 500 club appearances, Rodrigo de Paul has a World Cup winner's medal, and the Belgian duo of Yannick Carrasco and Alex Witzel aren't half bad.

Na accumulated 44,494 fan votes.

Na Sang-ho's well-struck penalty was ultimately saved at the weekend.

Alex Grant


The first player on my list selected by the management team, as opposed to the fans. I just had to pick a player selected by the manager. Hong obviously knows a thing or two about defending, having been part of four World Cup squads and appearing 136 times for his country as a sweeper.

Grant's nomadic career has taken the left-footed center-back from the fringe of the Premier League to the National League, Australia's A-League to the K League. On Thursday, he could find himself challenging World Cup winner Antoine Griezmann, Álvaro Morata, or João Félix for possession in front of a global audience. Making the jump to K League isn't for everyone but Grant has been richly rewarded.

He wasn't involved in last summer's game against Tottenham Hotspur.

This season, Grant's Pohang Steelers are second in the table, 12 points behind defending champions Ulsan Hyundai. Only two teams have conceded fewer goals than the Steelers. On a personal level, Grant has played in 21 of Pohang's 24 games, and he almost always stays on the field for 90 minutes. He wins 66% of all aerial duels, an important part of his game that will be tested on Thursday. 

Alex Grant will be looking to celebrate with new teammates on Thursday.

Who are you looking forward to seeing against Atlético Madrid?

If you're fortunate enough to have bought a ticket, don't forget to download the Futbology app, check in, and share photos from Seoul World Cup Stadium.

FNR



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