K League Fans Come Out in Numbers for Season Opener in Ulsan

K League 1 finally made its return after a long off-season with supporters coming out in their droves to see their teams in action for the first time since October. The season's opening match at the Munsu Football Stadium between Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors set the tone for the weekend with a bumper crowd, an electric atmosphere and an exciting game to watch.

After three years of restrictions, fans were out in full force for the K League 1 opener between reigning Champions Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. An incredible 28,039 fans came out to show their support, a record since the start of the pandemic and the highest opening day attendance since 2016.

Not only that, it was one of the highest-paid attendance since figures were changed to reflect this in 2018, omitting the number of fans who attended for free via promotion or invite. In reality, the actual unreported figure would likely be higher.

While the weather may still have born the final chills of winter, fans did not let the cold deter them, with both sets of supporters remaining vocal throughout. Those who attended were treated to an entertaining spectacle in what is increasingly becoming one of K League's biggest rivalries.

For Ulsan, manager Hong Myung-bo opted to field his recently acquired striker Joo Min-kyu instead of Martin Ádám at the top of a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, other marquee signings such as Ataru Esaka and Gustav Ludwigson were given places on the bench to be brought on later.

For Jeonbuk, manager Kim Sang-sik opted for young goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon to start against the Champions, having impressed in off-season. The move raised eyebrows considering the Green Warriors pursuit for FC Anyang stopper Jeong Min-ki in the window, yet Jeong was made to make do with a spot on the bench.

There was also no room for recently signed defender Jeong Tae-wook, with Kim opting for his preferred back four from last season with Kim Jin-su, Park Jin-seob, Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Moon-hwan starting. There was space for Kim Geon-woong to debut in defensive midfield though alongside Paik Seung-ho. Kim signed in the winter from Suwon FC in a mid to bolster the centre of the park.

Attackers Gustavo and Rafael Silva were left out the squad due to questions over their fitness for this match. 

Notably, for Ulsan fans, Jeonbuk decided to field former Horangi players Jun Amano and Lee Dong-jun in the starting eleven, with the former's transfer saga causing much controversy for the Horangi boss in the winter.

With the kick-off to the new season moment away, the away team greeted the reigning Champions with a guard of honour to the pitch as is tradition, yet a rarity in the sense that the last time Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors faced the previous year's winners on opening day was back in 1999 when they went up against Suwon Samsung Bluewings. 

Pleasantries would be saved merely for before kick-off, however, with the clubs picking up their fierce rivalry where it left off. A chorus of boos rang out for former Ulsan player Jun Amano every time he touched the ball with some heated challenges made early on.

Jeonbuk started the encounter well though, pressing and attacking far more than supporters had become used to last season. An attack compromising of Song Min-kyu, Cho Gue-sung, Lee Dong-jun and Jun Amano posed questions of Ulsan's backline early on and were rewarded within 10 minutes as Song Min-kyu was played into space in the area and made no mistake to give the visitors the lead, unleashing a shot beyond goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo

However, the FA Cup winners were unable to secure the second they needed and Ulsan found themselves coming into the game as the interval neared.

Joo Min-kyu's shot, superbly saved by Jeonbuk goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon, should have served as a warning to the Green Warriors. Yet, it didn't and two minutes later Ulsan had equalised with Eom Won-sang pouncing on the uncleared ball and slotting home.

The second half saw Ulsan continue to increase the pressure as they went in search of a winner, eventually finding it through substitute and debutant Gustav Ludwigson. A difficult pass back from Jeonbuk defender Hong Jeong-ho to his goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon saw the latter fail to comfortably control it, allowing for the former-Hammarby attacker to pounce on the loose ball, first taking it over the goalkeeper before slotting into an empty net.

Han Kyo-won, Moon Seon-min and new signing Andre Luis were introduced in attacking changes but Jeonbuk often failed to break down the Horangi backline and, when they did find a way through, they often saw their chances wasted.

With the full-time whistle, cheers of Ulsan-staple "Jal Gaseyo" (Goodbye/Go Well) rang out from the home end as their team celebrated striking an early blow against their title rivals. Now only that, Ulsan's victory put an end to a run of eleven years undefeated on the opening day for the Green Warriors.

While the performance from the Horangi may not yet have reached the scintillating peaks of last season, today's showing and spirited fightback do make it seem that the reigning Champions are not going to be relinquishing their crown easily in 2023.


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