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AFC Recap: Jeonbuk are Crowned Champions of Asia

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors - Champions of Asia AFC Champions League 2016
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors - Champions of Asia (Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)

After hiccups in the group stages, some sublime home form in the knockout rounds and two enthralling final legs, Saturday evening saw Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors crowned champions of Asia in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi. Goals from Leonardo and Han Kyo-won helped seal it across both legs, but it was the heroics of Choi Chul-soon and Kwoun Sun-tae, as well as some good fortune, that ultimately ensured the Korean side claimed their second continental honours.

The First Leg

It certainly was not easy for Choi Kang-hee's men, but perhaps finals of this magnitude shouldn't be. Coming into the first leg off the back of title race heartbreak at the hands of FC Seoul, there was always the possibility that the hangover would linger on as Jeonbuk played host to a UAE side comprised of considerable talent. With much being made of their playmaker Omar Abdulrahman in the pre-match build-up, the Abu Dhabi-based side looked like they would not be swept aside as easily as Shanghai and FC Seoul were on this ground.

The opening forty-five minutes would certainly exemplify this prediction with both teams being quite cagey in their exchanges. Omar had been moved up top to lead the line for his side, whereas Jeonbuk had opted to make up for their lack of defensive midfielder by employing defender Choi Chul-soon in the role, solely to follow Al Ain's star man around the pitch. It worked for the most part, with Choi performing admirably in his role, cutting off the visitors' supply.

The second half saw Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalic instruct his key asset to drop back towards his more usual role of central midfield to collect the ball. John McAuley had alluded to the possibility of Omar being used as a striker beforehand in our preview, but as it proved ineffective, Abdulrahman’s role became that of what was originally expected. In doing so, the space he created for himself made way for a number of key chances before the deadlock was broken. Collecting the ball near the right-hand sideline, Omar managed to avoid harassment from Park Won-jae and proceeded to find the Colombian attacker Danilo Asprilla in space, slotting a ball to his path, in which Asprilla blasted home without hesitation.

Choi Kang-hee responded immediately by withdrawing Kim Bo-kyung and replacing him with talisman striker Lee Dong-gook, shifting Lee into an attacking midfield role just behind Kim Shin-wook, moving Lee Jae-sung deeper and partnering him with Kim Hyung-il in central midfield, ultimately creating a 4-2-3-1 shape.

The Jeonbuk manager did not have to wait long to see his changes take affect as six minutes later the hosts had equalised in spectacular fashion. Lee Dong-gook played a ball across to Leonardo with the Brazilian having to turn away from goal to collect it. The left winger then proceeded to knock the ball inside toward the edge of the penalty area and around the defender before unleashing a venomous shot, straight into the left hand side of the goal. The stadium was in raptures of celebration and relief.

Leonardo was not done there however, and when towering striker Kim Shin-wook was pulled down in the penalty box by Fayez for trying to get onto the end of a Lee Dong-gook cross, the referee had no hesitation in awarding a yellow card to the visiting defender and a spot kick for the home side. Leonardo then doubled his tally, sending the keeper the wrong way and placing his shot to the right.

There proceeded to be chances for both sides, but both teams failed to convert. It did not matter to the 36,000 within the stadium however who's celebration of the home side was intended as both appreciation of their performance in this game and this season's efforts as a whole. Jeonju will not return to this stadium until the new year when they (hopefully) commence their 2017 Champions League campaign.

The Second Leg

As time was called on a delicately poised first leg, Jeonbuk set off twenty-four hours later to the UAE. Despite some training ground spats with their hosts, they seemed suitably prepared when the second leg kicked off the following Saturday evening.

Choi Kang-hee opted to replace Kim Shin-wook with veteran striker Lee Dong-gook, a man who would later go on to say that Jeonbuk's failure in 2011 to claim victory in the final had given nightmares for the last six years. Lim Jong-eun, after a solid first leg, also was removed from the team to make way for Cho Sung-hwan who had been excluded in the first leg through suspension.

Things in Al Ain got off to the worst possible start with Lopes falling awkward on his knee in the third minute. While Korean sides in general do have a tendency to overplay any foul, this looked instantly serious with the Brazilian immediately signalling to the bench and subsequently stretchered off. He was replaced by winger Han Kyo-won, a player who had not featured much in the second half of the season despite his strong form back in April and May.

Al Ain certainly came out all guns blazing, but it was Jeonbuk who were to open the scoring against the run of play when Lee Jae-sung delivered a fantastic corner straight to the feet of Han who blasted home from six yards out.

The celebrations proved to be short-lived as five minutes later Al Ain winger Caio delivered a cross into an unmarked Douglas who made no mistake about converting an opportunity provided to him on a plate.

Jeonbuk's problems appeared to worsen as the fell under increasing pressure. Kim Hyung-il would go on to clumsily foul Asprilla in the box as he was moving away from goal, conceding a penalty for his team. The Korean side would be mercifully let off the hook though as goalscorer Douglas blazed his attempt over the crossbar.

The drama would heighten before the interval when both team's benches came to blows. Han Kyo-won was brought down as a result of a firm but fair challenge. Play continued from both sides, but it was Al Ain's refusal to play the ball out when back with their keeper that sparked the protestations. There had also been many incidents up to this point that had failed to have been addressed by the officials for both sides, but given the pressure of the occasion and the manner in which blatant fouls were deemed to have been overlooked, the outpouring of discontent seemed unstoppable. The resulting arguments led to touchline bans for a Jeonbuk coach and the Al Ain manager Zlatko Dalic.

The second half continued to see heavy pressing from the home side, thwarted each time by Jeonbuk goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae. The captain led by example and was nothing short of heroic in his attempts to keep Jeonbuk's hands on the trophy. Much has been made of Jeonbuk's lethal midfield in this competition, but it was Kwoun's leadership that proved pivotal in hauling Jeonbuk over the finishing line.

Al Ain's threat would eventually fizzle out and the referee would bring to a close the second part of a final that should be shown as an advertisement of Asian football. Whilst the second leg may have lacked the goals, it certainly did not lack excitement. The traveling Jeonbuk fans were understandably delirious and so they should be. They will have seen much better performances this season, but their team demonstrated the level of fight that was lacking at the end of their league campaign.

Concluding Remarks

It would certainly be generous to say that Jeonbuk were clearly the better side in this fixture, especially given the talent and the fight of those in the Al Ain ranks, but it would also be churlish to say their accomplishment was not deserved either. Jeonbuk came into this competition with a wealth of new signings which had been acquired with this competition in mind. While they stuttered in the group rounds, one April evening in Tokyo marked a turnaround that would go onto propel them through each stage, quite often in considerable style. They were certainly deserving of their spot in the final and, as is sometimes the case, once in the final it can be anyone's trophy.

Winning the AFC Champions League will certainly help mask what ultimately became a disappointing end to a record breaking league campaign. I still believe there are serious issues that need to be addressed once football has ceased for the year, but for now, Jeonbuk can look forward to a trip to Osaka in two weeks to face Club America in the Club World Cup. If they can somehow proceed beyond the competition's first stage, a tantalising clash with La Liga giants Real Madrid would await. You can also sense the unease Ronaldo, Bale & co must be feeling at the thought of facing The Wookie.

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