After Ulsan Hyundai FC blanked rivals Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 1-0 last Sunday, head coach Hong Myung-bo said his players were still not at their 100 percent.
Even at less than their full strength, Ulsan have grabbed the early lead in the K League 1 with 10 points. They are the only undefeated team with three wins and a draw.
All three wins have come consecutively, and Ulsan will look to extend that streak Friday against FC Seoul.
The kickoff is 7 p.m. at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, some 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
One of Ulsan's new acquisitions, the Brazilian forward Leonardo, scored the winner against Jeonbuk for his first in the K League. Hong said he was looking forward to seeing Leonardo develop more chemistry with his midfielders as the season progresses, adding Ulsan will rely heavily on Leonardo for offense following offseason departures of some key attackers.
Ulsan are undefeated in their last dozen meetings against FC Seoul, with nine wins and three draws since April 2018.
In 2021, Ulsan had two wins and a draw against the club from the nation's capital. Valeri Qazaishvili feasted on FC Seoul's defense with three goals and an assist. And Ulsan believe having Leonardo as the striker will allow Qazaishvili to drop back into the playmaking role, his natural position.
During the offseason, Ulsan acquired former FC Seoul star Park Chu-young. The 36-year-old has only appeared in one match this season.
Ulsan are closely chased by their regional rivals Pohang Steelers. Not considered among the title contenders prior to the season, Pohang have instead pieced together three wins for nine points in their first four matches while playing every game away from home with their clubhouse undergoing renovation.
Pohang will visit Suwon Samsung Bluewings at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.
Jeonbuk, the five-time defending champions, will try to shake off their sluggish start against Jeju United at 2 p.m. Saturday. Jeonbuk have just one win in four matches, against one draw and two losses, while having scored only twice, a highly uncharacteristic development for a team that led the K League in goals in three of the past four years.
Gustavo and Stanislav Iljutcenko, who each scored 15 goals to lead Jeonbuk in 2021, have not yet found the back of the net in 2022.
Jeju United have also been a disappointment this season, despite being hyped up before the season as a potential challenger to Jeonbk's throne. They have just one goal in four matches, and the reigning league scoring champion, Joo Min-kyu, has been held without a goal.
Three clubs knotted at seven points, Gimcheon Sangmu FC, Incheon United and Gangwon FC, will all take the field Sunday.
Incheon will host Gimcheon at 2 p.m. at Incheon Football Stadium, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. At 4:30 p.m., Gangwon will bring home Suwon FC, the only winless club so far with one draw and three losses.
Gangwon's new Montenegrin forward Dino Islamovic has scored twice, and both of his goals have been game winners.
With the Feb. 19 opening kickoff, the 2022 season had the earliest start in K League history, and teams will have six matches in the books through March. The league hopes to wrap up the season before the FIFA World Cup, scheduled to begin on Nov. 21 in Qatar. (Yonhap)