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AFC Champions League Preview

Although the 2017 season has barely gone cold, four K League teams will be active again as the 2018 AFC Champions League draw is set for Wednesday, December 6th at 5:30pm KST. Our contributors run down how each club got into the competition, their history in the tournament, and what to expect when international football kicks off next month.
(image via FIFA.com)

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors


Jeonbuk qualified for the Asian Champions League 2018 after a strong domestic campaign that saw them finish first in the K League Classic with two matches to spare and some impressive showings along the way. The team last featured in continental competition in 2016, lifting the trophy on that occasion against Al Ain. Their only other success in the competition came ten years prior, defeating Al-Karamah in the 2006 final. Despite doing more than enough to qualify for the 2017 tournament, they were disqualified as punishment for their role in a domestic bribery scandal and were subsequently unable to defend their title. The North Jeolla side will enter this tournament in the group stage as one of the higher seeded clubs, and will once again expect to go deep into the competition to try and reclaim a crown they will feel still belongs to them.
- Matthew Binns (@Matt_Binns)

Ulsan Hyundai

Securing their first ever FA Cup title ensured the Horang-i would be back in ACL for the second year running after their surprise 2017 inclusion due to Jeonbuk being refused reentry to the competition. After missing out on international football in 2015 and 2016, competing globally in back to back years is a huge win for one of Korea's most recognizable clubs. 2018 will mark Ulsan's sixth appearance in the tournament they won back in 2012 with a 3-0 victory over Al-Ahli in front of 42,153 at Munsu. Though they won't come into 2018 expecting to match that magical run, the FA Cup victory ensured Ulsan will start the tournament directly in the Group Stage. A considerable improvement over this year when they had to start in the single-elimination playoff round and narrowly defeated Hong Kong's Kitchee on penalties. Having at least three ACL matches guaranteed, a shiny new trophy to add to the cabinet, and the backing of Hyundai should be enough for Ulsan to lure some well qualified talent in the transfer window this winter. Namely, they'll likely look to bolster an attack that already has Lee Jongho and MVP candidate, Mislav Oršić. Expectations will be higher next year than they were for the Horang-i this go round, and if they're to retake the mantle of an elite Korean club, then they need to at least get out of the group stage regardless of their competition.
- Ryan Walters (@MrRyanWalters)


Jeju United

After finishing as 2017 K League Classic runners up, Jeju United will enter the Asian Champions League at its group stage next season. Despite losing out to Jeonbuk Hyundai in the title race, those clad in orange bettered their efforts from 12 months ago and so will be happy to have made some progress. On the continent in 2017 United did what FC Seoul, Suwon Bluewings nor Ulsan Hyundai couldn't do by making it out of their ACL group. In a group consisting of Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning, J-League's Gamba Osaka, as well as Adelaide United from the A-League, United finished second after three wins, a draw and two defeats. Cho Sungwhan's side were defeated 3-2 on aggregate by eventual Champions Urawa Reds in the round of 16, despite holding a 2-0 lead heading into the second leg. Having only competed in the ACL once before, last year's round of 16 exit was the furthest Jeju have ever gone in the competition. Alas, in the name of progress, in 2018, with the experience of this year behind them, Jeju United will be hoping to at least make it to the quarter finals. Whilst winning the tournament would be perhaps seen as unlikely, if sufficient reinforcements are brought in to bolster the squad, United could surprise a few teams on the continent next season.
- Paul Neat (@NeatPaul)

Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Despite their place in the ACL looking compromised with only 5 weeks of the 2017 league season remaining, Suwon edged their way to a 3rd placed finish in the league, eventually finishing just two points above their nearest challengers Ulsan. And Suwon go into their 4th successive season in the ACL looking to improve on two mediocre displays in 2016 and 2017. The Gyeongi-do based team crashed out at the group stage on both those occasions and although they were unlucky not to progress from a group containing eventual semi-finalist's Kawasaki Frontale and Guangzhou Evergrande more should be expected from the Korean giants who have won the competition 3 times in the past.

Suwon will enter this year's edition of the ACL in the Play Off Round and will face either Hong Kong's Eastern or Vietnam's FLC Thanh Hoa on a cold January night in Suwon. General expectation will still remain low until after the winter transfer window has closed but a team of Suwon's stature and history, and with one of the best marksmen in Asia in their squad in the form of Brazilian Johnathan, they should be aiming to at least make the knockout stages of the tournament and anything less than that will most certainly be a disappointment for the Bluewings.
- Scott Whitelock (@ScottySSBFC)

We'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions in the comments below regarding these teams being back in ACL. Also, feel free to watch Jeonbuk, Ulsan, Jeju, and Suwon's groups take shape live on the AFC's YouTube channel! We'll be live on Facebook.com/KLeagueUnited as the draw takes place reacting to the groups and your comments as they come in!

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