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Jeonbuk Crowned 2017 K League Classic Champions

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are the 2017 K League Classic Champions

There were no shocks or scares in Jeonju on this Halloween weekend, as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors saw off fellow title contenders Jeju United in what would prove to be a literal five star performance as they were crowned this year's K League Classic Champions.
(Photo via Fox Sports Asia)

A 3-0 victory over second placed Jeju United ensured that Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors claimed this year's K League Classic trophy with two matches to spare. This league title is Jeonbuk's fifth in their history, having also won the division three of the last four seasons. Their 2nd place finish last season was partially due to being docked nine points with six games remaining for their scout's involvement in the 2013 bribery scandal.

Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee reverted to a 3-5-2, a formation he has played on each occasion in which his team has faced Jeju United this season to varying results. However, the line-up proved quite similar to the side that edged a narrow one-nil victory back on the island just a few weeks ago, using Lopes as a striker rather than on the wings he usually frequents.

The chosen formation also allowed for Lee Seung-gi, a player who has improved and impressed as the season has gone on, in an attacking midfield role alongside Lee Jae-sung. When Kim Bo-kyung left mid-summer, it seemed unlikely that perhaps his best replacement within the squad would be the then left winger.

Surprisingly, Jeju opted to leave their star striker and top goalscorer Magno Cruz on the bench, with a pairing of Jin Seong-wook and Lee Eun-beom starting instead. It would be a move later corrected when Lee Eun-beom would require replacing midway through the first half due to injury.

There was actually very little of note in the first half besides the aforementioned substitution. Jeju's back three of Kim Won-il, Cho Yong-hyung and captain Oh Ban-suk proved as resolute as they have been for the majority of the season, effectively managing to hide the towering Kim Shin-wook from the rest of his teammates in addition to neutralising the threat posed by Lopes.

It only took two minutes into the second half however for Jeonbuk to finally assert their authority. The previously anonymous Kim Shin-wook won the ball in the air against Oh Ban-suk and headed towards the edge of the box for Lee Jae-sung to volley into the net. It has been another strong season for Lee, having now chalked up seven goals and nine assists for the year, despite missing out for the first ten weeks of the campaign through injury.

Moments later, Jeju United right wing back Park Jin-po saw his second yellow of the afternoon for catching Kim Jin-su's face with his elbow. There did not initially seem enough malice in the contact, but his elbow was unnaturally raised as if to try and halt the Jeonbuk defender and was certainly deserving of a booking.

With ten men, Jeonbuk continued to increase the pressure with a number of attacking waves. A threaded ball through to what initially looked like Kim Shin-wook, who moved out of the way as he to avoid being caught offside, was ran onto by Lee Seung-gi, exposing the vacant space left by the departed Park Jin-po. His first shot was straight at the body of the Jeju keeper, but the deflection was fortuitous, allowing him to slot home into an empty net, thereby doubling the hosts' lead.

The title was all but sealed when substitute Lee Dong-gook converted with ten minutes to go. The ball looked to be heading out for a goal kick, when the pace of Lopes allowed the Brazilian to salvage it and cross in to the awaiting Lee, whose glancing header from six yards sent the stadium into raptures.

There were a few opportunities to make it four, but it would have been harsh on Jeju given the fight they have shown throughout this campaign. They continue to improve under manager Jo Sung-hwan and will look to use this year's high placed finish as further foundations to build upon for an even stronger showing next year.

As for Jeonbuk, this year's squad has been far from vintage at times, especially given the impressive season last year. However, this squad was thinner that the year previous, with numerous long term injuries that had to be contended with. Whilst he is arguably partially at fault for the lack of transfer activity, it would be churlish to deny Choi Kang-hee credit considering the improved quality of competition he has mostly seen off with ease this season.

While the records will once again show Jeonbuk's name on the title, the gap looked to have narrowed this season, and with more consistency, the likes of Jeju, Ulsan and possibly Suwon could have given them a scare. The majority of performances against these top sides challenging though were positive, underlining the credentials of man who is often, sometimes unfairly, criticised for unentertaining long ball tactics when the truth is these instances are mostly in the past.

If anything, this Jeonbuk side have shown just how much of a team they are, with goals and assists spread fairly evenly throughout the attack and midfield, with only two players presently breaking double digits. Their goal tally (69) is currently three off what they achieved last year, an amount that was rightly praised for how impressive it was at the time, yet they have also managed to significantly lower the number of goals conceded (31) thanks to some astute defensive recruitment. For this, manager Choi Kang-hee deserves the plaudits.

Jeonbuk Manager Choi Kang-hee celebrates after his team with their fifth league title
Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com

With a return to the Asian Champions League next season after being disqualified for this year's edition, more recruitment will be needed in the winter. As for now though, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are K League Champions once more. Not "like always" perhaps, but with considerably more consistency than most.

Highlights from the match can be viewed here.

Lee Dong-gook's 200th Goal

Jeonbuk Hyundai Manage Choi Kang-hee and striker Lee Dong-gook
Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com

This match also saw veteran striker and Jeonbuk hero Lee Dong-gook reach his milestone 200th K League goal, coming off the bench late on to score his team's third by converting a Lopes cross with a powerful header to much celebration in the stands.

The man often referred to as "The Lion King" is well known throughout Korea for his goal scoring prowess at both club and national team level, earning over 100 international caps and converting 33 goals to place him third in Korea's highest scorers.

At club level, his career has taken him from Pohang to Europe, playing for Werder Bremen and Middlesborough, before returning to the peninsula to play a season for Seongnam before making his move to Jeonbuk in 2009, a club he would become synonymous with, scoring 126 times in 247 appearances.

Flanked by his five young children, made famous by the Korean reality TV program "Superman Returns", the 38 year-old Lee deservedly celebrated both his club's and his personal achievement after the trophy presentation.

Somewhat predictably, talk has now moved towards his retirement date. Lee Dong-gook has tended to defy those who criticise his age season upon season by continuing to score at a decent enough rate to warrant his involvement in the squad. That said, this year has seem slow down somewhat, featuring more frequently from the substitute bench than in previous seasons, with his goal tally suffering because of it.

That said, when the national team looked like they may possibly not make the world cup, one of recently appointed Korean manager Shin Tae-yong's first decisions was to call upon Lee to return to the national setup and offer his experience to help ensured they progressed.

Lee has indicated that this may finally be the season he hangs up his boots, but is still yet to make a decision, with rumours earlier in the year suggesting he would stay for one more year. If he were to bow out now though, it certainly would be a strong year for him to finish on.

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