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2024 Hana Bank K League 1 Round 1 Preview

league 2024.02.28   I   hits 376

As the Hana Bank K League 1 returns, it does so in style, with this year's curtain-raiser an East Coast Derby worth plenty of curiosity. There's also a bout between two of 2024's top teams to keep an eye on when last season's surprise package Gwangju FC host a potentially revitalised FC Seoul. Add into the mix a return to the top-flight for Gimcheon Sangmu when they travel to Daegu FC, an early chance to see if Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors can emphasise their improvements when up against Daejeon Hana Citizen, an increasingly settled Incheon United versus an overhauled Suwon FC, as well as a battle between two of last season's Final B sides in Gangwon FC and Jeju United, and there's plenty for anyone to sink their teeth into this weekend.

Friday 1st March

#EastCoastDerby: Ulsan HD vs. Pohang Steelers - 14:00

Starting the 2024 K League 1 season is an East Coast Derby which sees last year’s champions go head-to-head with the reigning FA Cup winners. Historically, the “Champion vs. Champion” curtain-raiser heavily skews towards the league winners, who have won on eight occasions, lost twice, and drawn four. Last year, Ulsan HD began their campaign with a 2-1 victory against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, which would serve as the catalyst for a winning run of six games. Pohang Steelers, though, have come away with all three points in their last four opening-round games.

Interestingly, both teams will enter the opening day with a definite point to prove. For the rebranded Ulsan, they’ll want to show they’re ready to compete for a third consecutive title, and that last year’s relative downturn in form from mid-July onwards (the team won six, lost six, and drew five of their last 17 matches in 2023) is something they’ve learnt from, and that as a team they’re far closer to the side who won 17 of their first 21 games. Meanwhile, Pohang, following a busy winter where they lost important players (Alex Grant, Goh Young-joon, Zeca, Ha Chang-rae) and manager Kim Gi-dong, will be out to demonstrate that they’re still ready to be a threat near the top-end of the table, even if they’re a bit of an unknown entity at this current point in time. Last season, Ulsan won two of the four meetings between these two sides, with the other two ending in draws.

#JEOvDHFC: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors vs. Daejeon Hana Citizen - 16:30

After a disappointing 2023, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will want to start the year off with an opening-round victory when they host Daejeon Hana Citizen. The Green Warriors finished in fourth last season, their lowest ranking since 2008, but have shown some recent improvements in AFC Champions League competition, where they have progressed to the quarter-finals at the expense of Pohang Steelers. Jeonbuk have been active in the transfer market too, which includes the signing of Tiago Orobó from this week’s opposition, and central midfielder Lee Yeong-jae to replace Paik Seung-ho, who left for Birmingham City. As for Daejeon, they had a solid first year back in K League 1 (8th place with 51 points), but the Purples will now be seeking improvements, and a potential Final A push, especially given the calibre of winter additions such as Lee Soon-min, Aaron Calver, and Kim Seung-dae.

Last year, it was Daejeon who had the advantage in this fixture, as they won in Round 9 before two later score draws. Nevertheless, Jeonbuk are generally a reliable side on opening day, even if their 10-year unbeaten run (nine wins, one draw) in Round 1 fixtures was broken last year when Ulsan HD ran out 2-1 winners. Conversely, Daejeon marked their return to the top flight with a 2-0 win over Gangwon FC last year, meaning they’ve been victorious in four of their last five opening matches (the only defeat being at the hands of eventual league winners Gwangju FC in the 2022 K League 2 season, though that game was played in Round 2).

Saturday 2nd March

#GWAvSEO: Gwangju FC vs. FC Seoul  - 14:00

In a game where two of this season’s most intriguing teams face off, Gwangju FC welcome FC Seoul to the Gwangju Football Stadium on Saturday. The home side had a fantastic 2023, where their attractive brand of football allowed for a third-place finish and Champions League qualification. Seoul were less successful, finishing in the bottom half for a fourth consecutive season, but with new manager Kim Gi-dong, and marquee signing Jesse Lingard - among other solid additions like the permanent signing of Willyan, Rebin Sulaka, Ryu Jae-moon, and Choi Jun - means there is definite excitement in the camp, and a real belief that the capital city side will not only push for a Final A place, but compete strongly for AFC Champions League qualification, or more.

Last season, FC Seoul won twice in this fixture, but it's Gwangju who boast the most recent victory, a 1-0 win in September which ended a winless run of nine for the Griffins when up against the capital city club. As for recent opening round history, Seoul have a slight advantage, with their three wins and two losses beating Gwangju's three losses and two wins.

#GANvJEJ: Gangwon FC vs. Jeju United - 16:30

The year 2023 wasn’t great for either Gangwon FC or Jeju United, as both teams dropped four places in the table relative to their 2022 league finishes. For the Bears, that meant they needed to secure survival via the Promotion-Relegation Playoff, whilst for the Islanders it meant late worries of potential danger were only eased by a slight change in fortunes during Final B. In this fixture last year, there were three dramatic draws and one Jeju victory.

Neither of these two sides have particularly strong opening-round form, but Gangwon do have the edge, with two wins and three losses over the last five seasons. The Bears will want to ensure a strong start this year though, as they aim to indicate that the attacking contributions brought forward by Kim Dae-won (who is now at Gimcheon) over the last three seasons have been adequately covered by both new signings and tactical tweaks. Jeju, on the other hand, have drawn four times and lost once over their last five opening-day fixtures, and haven’t won their first game of the year since 2017. In the dugout this weekend for the Tangerines is new manager Kim Hak-bum, who coincidentally had to leave from from his job at Gangwon back in 2013 after a 4-0 defeat courtesy of his new employers.

#INCvSUW: Incheon United vs. Suwon FC - 16:30

Looking to finish inside the top half for a third consecutive year, an opening-round win would go a long way in giving Incheon United some early season momentum. The Durumi haven’t historically had the best fortunes in their first league game of a year, though, and have only won once in these fixtures since 2010 (a 1-0 home win against Suwon Samsung Bluewings in 2022). Suwon FC haven’t done much better as of late though, with no opening-round win since 2018, and three losses in the last five years.

Overall, both teams have had very different winter windows coming into the new season. While Incheon have operated in a low-key manner, Suwon have undergone something of an overhaul under new manager Kim Eun-jung, which includes the arrivals of Kwon Kyung-won, Lee Jae-won, Kim Tae-han, Jeong Seung-won, and Jung Jae-min, as well as departures such as midfielder Lee Yeong-jae, defender Shin Se-gye, and forward Kim Hyun. For the home side, then, both goalkeeper Lee Bum-soo and returning defender Matej Jonjić could feature, but it currently remains to be seen where Suwon’s new arrivals will fit in.

Sunday 3rd March

#DAEvGIM: Daegu FC vs. Gimcheon Sangmu - 14:00

Rounding out the opening round action is Daegu FC versus Gimcheon Sangmu. The Sky Blues returned to Final A in 2023, and following a fairly quiet winter will want similar stability this year. This week’s visitors arrive as the sole promoted side from K League 2 after Gimcheon won the second-division title on the final day of the 2023 season. In 2024, the military side will have some intriguing names to call upon, including Kim Dae-won, Seo Min-woo, Kim Bong-soo, Park Seung-wook, and Lee Jin-yong.

Coming into this game, Daegu haven't lost to the army side since 2020, but all three of the 2022 K League 1 meetings ended in draws. The Sky Blues haven't won in the opening round since 2016 (2-0 away to Daejeon Hana Citizen in K League 2), meaning the visitors, who haven't lost their first game of the year since 2020 (two draws, one win) may have a slight psychological edge.

[READ: 2024 K League 2 Season Preview]

Where to Watch

Ulsan HD vs. Pohang Steelers on Friday and Gwangju FC vs. FC Seoul on Saturday are the two matches picked for English commentary. However, all six encounters are available on TV.KLeague.com.