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Preview: Gangwon FC vs Ulsan Hyundai

After being brushed aside on their travels to Daejeon, Gangwon FC will be looking to right some wrongs when they host the defending champions, Ulsan Hyundai. It will be no easy task for the Bears, however, and not just necessarily because they're facing off against last year's title winners. Put simply, the provincial club have failed to best this weekend's opponents in over a decade.

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It wasn't an ideal start to the campaign for Gangwon, as they lost 2-0 away to Daejeon Hana Citizen in their opening fixture. Generally, it was a subpar performance for the Bears, their slow start stripping them of any real chance of impacting the game. Of course, Daejeon deserve plenty of credit for their excellent showing too, but Choi Yong-soo's side will want to prove they're made of much sterner stuff coming into Sunday's fixture.

Ulsan, on the other hand, got their 2023 off to an ideal start, triumphing over expected title-challengers Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. It's the type of victory that can set the tone for a fruitful year - debutant Gustav Ludwigson's 65th minute effort capitalising off a defensive error was enough to seal the 2-1 win - and so the Horangi will now look to maintain their perfect start.

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With Dino Islamovic and Han Kook-young making their returns for Gangwon last weekend, the Bears can boast a relatively clean bill of health. Aside from Lee Sung-won, who is away with South Korea's u20 side, only Ikromjon Alibaev (hamstring) is now expected to be missing.

As for the away side, Hong Myung-bo has plenty of players at his disposal too. Um Won-sang is a slight doubt, though, and this game may still come too soon for Lee Chung-yong.


Historically, this is a fixture extremely unkind to Gangwon. They've won just two of the 33 meetings between them and Ulsan Hyundai, and have came out on the losing side 26 times since 2009. The last time this fixture was played saw Hong Myung-bo's men claim the K League 1 title following a 2-1 victory, and the last time this Sunday's visitors were defeated by the Bears was back in May of 2012.

What to Watch

Can Gangwon finally beat Ulsan again?

Back in October, when a Kim Dae-won penalty put Gangwon 1-0 up against Ulsan, it started to feel like the provincial club may finally achieve the win that has alluded them for a decade. Unfortunately for the Bears, this wasn't the case, and just like in 12 of their last 13 attempts, they lost to their most feared adversary. But the performance level was high, just as it was in July, and to stretch even further back, as it was in May of 2021.

The truth is that, at least from an effort and endeavour standpoint, it seems like Gangwon are slowly edging closer to being able to get that all important victory, even if the gulf in quality between themselves and Ulsan is arguably increasing. Will they be able to reverse their fortunes as soon as Sunday, though? Odds are, the Bears will come up short again, but if Choi Yong-soo can find a way to keep his side composed, particularly if they're ahead, an upset could, at long last, be on the cards.

Will Ulsan continue to set the pace?

In 2022, it was Ulsan's excellent start to the season that allowed them to establish themselves as firm title contenders. They picked up 23 points in their opening ten games (to compare, eventual second-placed Jeonbuk managed 15 over the same period), a high number which set the benchmark for their steady stream of results over the rest of the campaign.

Continuing, in the same vein as last year, Ulsan have beaten Jeonbuk at the first time of asking, something which allows the Horangi a chance at setting the pace for their attempt at retaining the K League 1 title. Given Gangwon have a knack for slipping up in this fixture, Hong Myung-bo's men may also find themselves able to send a firm message of intention here.

Who to Watch

Han Kook-young

Despite it being his return from a long injury layoff, Han Kook-young managed to make himself one of Gangwon's few bright sparks in their season opener. Energetic, eager to get into the opposition box, and generally looking far sharper than he did last time he was seen in an orange shirt, the 32-year-old has already shown he's hungry to be a key cog for the Bears going forward. On Sunday, there will be no better way to solidify those ambitions than by helping his teammates to a headline-grabbing upset against Ulsan Hyundai.

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