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(News Focus) Jeonbuk's Asian club football title makes up for domestic disappointment

2016/11/27 13:54

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, Nov. 27 (Yonhap) -- After failing to live up to expectations on the domestic stage this season, the South Korean football giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors bounced back from disappointment to win the premier Asian club competition.

Jeonbuk claimed their first Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League title in 10 years after defeating Al Ain FC. Both sides played to a 1-1 draw in the second leg at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on Saturday, but the result was enough for Jeonbuk to capture the continental title with an aggregate score of 3-2.

Jeonbuk defeated Al Ain 2-1 in the first leg at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, some 240 kilometers south of Seoul, on Nov. 19.

The AFC Champions League (ACL) crown helped Jeonbuk wrap up their 2016 season on a high note after a disappointing run at home.

Players and coaching staff of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors celebrate their Asian Football Confederation Champions League title over Al Ain FC at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, the United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 26, 2016. (Yonhap) Players and coaching staff of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors celebrate their Asian Football Confederation Champions League title over Al Ain FC at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, the United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 26, 2016. (Yonhap)

This season, Jeonbuk were widely tabbed as the prohibitive favorites to win the top-flight K League Classic. Gunning for a three-peat, they signed a slew of high-profile players during the offseason to add depth to an already stacked squad.

Jeonbuk's new faces this season included striker Kim Shin-wook, the league's reigning scoring champion with Ulsan Hyundai FC; former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung; and the national team right back Kim Chang-soo.

They also brought in forwards Lee Jong-ho from regional rival Jeonnam Dragons, former K League Young Player of the Year winner Go Moo-yul from the Pohang Steelers and Brazilian Ricardo Lopes, who had 11 goals and 11 assists with Jeju United last year.

They mingled well with existing stars like striker Lee Dong-gook, the league's all-time leading scorer; midfielder Lee Jae-sung, named the best young player last year; and Brazilian talisman Leonardo Rodrigues Pereira.

Jeonbuk head coach Choi Kang-hee managed his star-studded squad with a rotation system, so they could perform equally well in both the league and cup competitions.

It seemed to pay off very well for the most part. During their eight-month journey, Jeonbuk set the K league record for the longest unbeaten streak with 33 games, breaking their previous mark of 22 set between September 2014 and April 2015.

Jeonbuk, however, failed to cap off such a dominant start. They were hit with a nine-point deduction penalty in the middle of the season, which turned out to be a crucial factor in finishing second behind FC Seoul, the domestic rivals that Jeonbuk beat in the ACL semis.

On Sept. 30, the K League's disciplinary committee docked Jeonbuk nine points and fined them 100 million won (US$87,300), after one of the club's scouts was convicted for bribing two referees in 2013.

Choi's side entered their final showdown against Seoul tied at 67 points. Since Jeonbuk had the tiebreaking edge in goals scored, a draw would have been enough for them to secure the championship. However, Jeonbuk suffered a stunning 1-0 loss at home and fell short of the domestic crown.

That was just 13 days before Jeonbuk were scheduled to play Al Ain in the ACL final.

The defeat shattered Jeonbuk's dream of achieving the league-ACL double for the first time in their history. In 2014 and 2015, when Jeonbuk won the league title, they failed to even reach the ACL final.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head coach Choi Kang-hee is tossed in the air by his players after they won the Asian Football Confederation Champions League title over Al Ain FC at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, the United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 26, 2016. (Yonhap) Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head coach Choi Kang-hee is tossed in the air by his players after they won the Asian Football Confederation Champions League title over Al Ain FC at Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, the United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 26, 2016. (Yonhap)

However, Choi and his charge got their consolation with a hard-earned ACL title, which also washed away their painful memory of losing the 2011 final at home.

"It has been really a tough season for us, but our players did their jobs well," Choi said at the post-match press conference Saturday. "I want to give this trophy to our supporters who have been always with us even when we had difficult times."

   Leonardo was pivotal in Jeonbuk's run in the ACL. With 10 goals, he was the tournament's second-leading scorer after Seoul's Carlos Adriano. Leonardo grabbed a brace against Al Ain in the ACL first leg.

Veteran striker Lee Dong-gook, 37, chipped in five goals. He is the all-time leading scorer in the ACL with 32 goals.

"I think winning the AFC Champions League is more difficult than playing at the World Cup," said Lee, who burst into tears after winning the ACL. "My teammates in the final did a great job, but I also want people to remember those who didn't play in the final because their efforts also helped us to achieve this result."

  

The latest victory makes Jeonbuk the first South Korean club to win the AFC Champions League (ACL) title twice since the competition was introduced in 2003. Including the records of the now defunct Asian Club Championship, the K League has combined for a record 11 continental titles.

Jeonbuk will now represent Asia against the world's top football clubs at the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan next month.

In the tournament that features the winners of the continental club championships plus the host country's national champions, Jeonbuk can set up a semifinal with Spanish giants Real Madrid if the South Korean side beat Mexico's Club America from the North, Central America and Caribbean region.

No Asian club has reached the final. Among the South Korean clubs, Pohang Steelers have posted the best result so far with a third-place finish in 2009.

"It will be great if we can take on Real Madrid," head coach Choi said. "We don't have to be desperate like we were at the ACL. If we can prepare for the tournament in a light-hearted mode, we might get an unexpected result."

   kdon@yna.co.kr

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