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2018 Season Preview: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

K League 1 Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors look ahead towards the 2018 Season

Having spent last year solely concentrating on the domestic front, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have invested heavily ahead of their return to the AFC Champions League and are looking frighteningly strong heading into the 2018 campaign. Once again, followers of the league find themselves pondering whether or not there is anyone capable of putting a halt to this North Jeolla juggernaut.
(Photo Credit: Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)



Last Season 


W22-D9-L7, 1st Place in the K League Classic

What Happened?


With no AFC Champions League to focus on due to disqualification, Jeonbuk went about stripping their squad of their flashier elements and decided to make a pragmatic effort to take back the K League with minimal fuss. More impressive than their ruthlessness however was Choi Kang-hee’s squad management abilities as he contended with serious injuries to key personnel early on in the campaign, yet still steered his side into poll position until those players returned. Once they eventually did appear from the sick bay, it was plain sailing from there on in. Come the end of the season, the North Jeolla club had finished nine points clear of their nearest rivals, scoring more and conceding less than the 2016 Jeonbuk team, a side which was considered by many fans as one of their best iterations. It was the type of season that was very much required after the roller coaster of the previous year, and now, with the league trophy back in their grip, Jeonbuk have heavily bolstered their ranks, ready to set about reclaiming their continental crown and being revered as one of Asia’s best.

Notable Moves


Hong Jeong-ho: Following the success of Kim Jin-su’s transfer last season, Jeonbuk have come to the aid of another former European based national team defender in need of valuable minutes to earn a recall. Hong Jeong-ho’s move to China was disappointing to many Korean fans given the regular starting spot he was holding down at Augsburg, and unexpected changes to the foreign quota rules in the Chinese Super League after his move only compounded matters as he could then hardly get on to the pitch. Jeonbuk already boast three of the country’s starting back four defenders though, and the player will no doubt be hoping by playing alongside them regularly, he can complete the set in Russia this summer.

Tiago: Only a few players have ever lit up in the league in such a short spell and then left leaving fans from all clubs wanting more. Tiago’s half season spell at Seongnam in 2016 (in addition to his season at Pohang Steelers prior) was somewhat of a whirlwind, scoring thirteen goals and making his side title contenders, before then leaving and his club subsequently plummeting down to relegation without him. Having now returned to Korean shores, the attacker will likely fill the gap vacated by Leonardo on the left wing over a year ago, with Jeonbuk hoping he can live up to legendary status that his country man still holds at the club.

Adriano: Speaking of 2016 superstars, it was FC Seoul striker Adriano who not only continued to light up the league, but tore into Asia as if he had been playing there for an age, finishing joint scorer in the competition that year with 13 goals. Having spent last season in the Chinese second tier though, Jeonbuk will be hoping their new signing can slip easily back into his goal scoring ways, especially as the North Jeolla side have struggled to have a dominant striker option for the last two and a half years, despite their high scoring antics. Early signs in the Champions League would suggest he still has it.

Lee Dong-gook and Adriano walk away after making the score 6-0 against Kitchee in the AFC Champions League, with the latter scoring a hattrick and also assisting the former in the rout. (Photo Credit: Jon Christian)

Needs


What do you get the team that has everything? Well reasurances on the first team goalkeeper may not hurt. It is not that Hong Jeong-nam is a poor ‘keeper, as he is a more than capable first team choice for nearly all the sides in the division, yet he still feels somewhat average given the player who came before him. One year on from the departure of club legend Kwoun Sun-tae, Hong does not yet look like the replacement who can fill his gloves, and the only notably poor game he has had in a Jeonbuk shirt, against Kashiwa Reysol in mid-February, has increased the spotlight on his capabilities.

In the pecking order, Hwang Byeong-keun sits patiently, a now 24 year-old who replaced Hong in the team towards the end of last season when the side needed to field an under 23 player in the starting eleven to meet the league’s quota (or face only having two substitutes). Worryingly for Hong, Hwang performed admirably, playing all the crucial post-split games and being on the field when Jeonbuk were crowned champions. Add the recruitment of 20 year old Song Beom-keun to the squad, a goalkeeper who featured in Korea’s U20 World Cup squad and was widely rumoured to be coveted by Bundesliga clubs before moving to Jeonju, and it would seem the time is ticking on Hong’s starting place. Song may even have surpassed Hwang to some extent, starting in the most recent round of Champions League fixtures against Hong Kong side Kitchee. Manager Choi Kang-hee has more than capable depth in the position it would seem, and looks as if by offering a new contract to Hong in January, aims to improve what he already has by adding some strong competition to his ranks. The worry is, by handing Hong Jeong-nam the number one jersey, is he going to create discontent in the team if he chooses not to select him?

Korea U20 'keeper Song Beom-keun saves and holds onto the ball against Kitchee SC in the AFC Champions League
(Photo Credit: Jon Christian)

Key Player


Lee Jae-sung

Last season’s K League MVP Lee Jae-sung is still very much the man to watch despite the high profile signings the club has undertaken in the off-season. The central attacking midfielder had his best ever season in a Jeonbuk shirt last year, scoring eight goals and assisting ten, despite missing the first ten weeks of the season through injury.

It was likely that injury that may have played a minor role as to why he chose to stay in Jeonju last summer despite rumoured suitors. The gossip mill has been churning again over the winter, with talk of a number of Ligue Un clubs taking notice of Lee’s talents, yet the player has once again opted to stay to ensure he gets enough playing time ahead of the World Cup this summer. After that, perhaps supporters will then finally see him leave these shores but, until then, the 25 year old is still very much the player to watch in this Jeonbuk squad.

Biggest Question


Can they win on multiple fronts?

It is a bold question, perhaps tinged with a touch of arrogance, but with this level of investment and recent dominance, the only target should be to win it in a style better than that seen before. Given their depth coming into this season, there should be enough talent to fight well on multiple fronts. The club’s primary target is the Champions League, but maintaining a strong showing in the title race will also be paramount. Given that they came so close to winning both in 2016, Choi Kang-hee has unfinished business and should be looking to make sure that both Korea and Asia are painted various shades of green come December.

Reason to Watch


The return of Tiago and Adriano to the peninsula is perhaps the biggest draw for watching Jeonbuk as a neutral this season. Both players lit up the league for Seongnam and FC Seoul respectively in 2016. To have them both back in the division, and playing for the same side, should hopefully lead to both an exciting and terrifying spectacle, assuming they can pick up where they left off that is.

Otherwise, another reason to keep tabs on Jeonbuk this season is because of their return to the AFC Champions League. Regardless of where you sit on their exclusion last year, Jeonbuk dominated the eastern section of the tournament in 2016 and look as if they are coming back this year to prove a point. With K League teams having endured a disappointing stint in the competition last season, Jeonbuk’s return should hopefully maintain Korea’s interest in the tournament through to the latter stages.

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