|Hong Jeong-ho of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, left, vies for the ball with Jung Jo-gook of Gangwon FC during a 2019 Hana1Q K League match at Songam Sports Town in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province on Aug. 4. Yonhap|
By John Duerden
The rivalry between the Jeolla and Gyeongsang regions continues. Jeonbuk Motors has been the dominant force in South Korean soccer for the past decade, but this season the champion is facing one of its stiffest challenges in the form of Ulsan Horangi-i.
With two-thirds of the season under our belts, Ulsan sits on top of the K League summit. The two-time champion finished third to Jeonbuk last season but has been in excellent form of late with wins at home to Seoul and a 5-0 thrashing of Jeju United. Ulsan has had a solid defense all season but has started to look more dangerous of late.
Ulsan coach Kim Do-hoon knows a thing or two about scoring goals as he showed throughout a long career and has paid tribute to his Tigers.
"We are moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go in this season and we need to keep working hard," Kim said. "There are a lot of good teams in the K League and we have to be at our best."
Ulsan recruited well after last season and brought in the talented attacking midfield figure of Kim Bo-kyung. The former English Premier League star has added an extra dimension, adding goals, assists and creativity. He has linked up well with star Brazilian striker Junior Negao, who has also been in fine form.
At the same time, Jeonbuk has been missing the goals from talismanic target man Kim Shin-wook, who left for Shanghai Shenhua earlier in the summer, reuniting with former Jeonbuk boss Choi Kang-hee. The international star scored nine goals in the first 17 games of the season ― and while that is a fine return, it is nothing to what he has managed in China. In his first five Chinese Super League games, Kim has found the target an incredible eight times.
Jeonbuk's loss is very much Shanghai's gain and it means the Jeonju team is looking elsewhere for goals. So far, it has found them with 14 goals scored in the five games following "The Wookie's" departure, but while Jeonbuk is still scoring, the backline has become increasingly porous.
FC Seoul is in third place, but if its recent inconsistent form continues, then any title challenge will fade.
There are also three teams fighting to avoid the drop. Jeju United finished fifth last season and Gyeongnam was second but both are in the middle of a fierce battle along with Incheon United. Incheon has been in plenty of scraps before but the others are struggling to adapt to the unfamiliar feeling of looking down at the second tier in trepidation. Nobody wants to swap the K League for K2.
Fortunately for those teams that have work to do, there is still a lot of time.