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ACL Recap: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 3-2 Kashiwa Reysol

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors came from behind in AFC Champions League match with Kashiwa Reysol, thanks to some heroics from veteran striker Lee Dong-gook.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors eventually arrived for this year's AFC Champions League after mounting a comeback from two goals down to claim a hard fought victory against Kashiwa Reysol, with 'Lion King' Lee Dong-gook roaring his team into life in the second half.
(image via Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)

Despite a winter of heavy investment, it was Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' reliable 38 year-old talisman, Lee Dong-gook, that was required to spare the K League champions' blushes on Tuesday evening against J.League side Kashiwa Reysol.

Having found themselves two goals behind by the halfway mark, two half time substitutions, in addition to a shift in formation, saw the North Jeolla club finally take control of proceedings after having previously put in one of their worst halves of football for a long while.

One of those substitutes, Lee Dong-gook contributed two goals to his team's fightback, either side of an acrobatic Kim Jin-su effort, to claim all three points from a very difficult position, leaving fans in a state of unbridled ecstacy.

The home side began proceedings in their familiar 4-1-4-1 line up, with starting debuts offered to centre back Hong Jeong-ho and central midfielder and last season's top assist maker, Son Jun-ho. The rest of the squad took a very familiar shape, with new signings Tiago and Adriano excluded due to fitness concerns. Tiago was fit enough for the bench however, but Adriano watched the game from the stands, knowing that his home debut will not be until the visit of Ulsan Hyundai on March 1st.

The main concern going into this game was the lack of time the team had actually spent together in pre-season. Due to a hastily planned, national team camp, seven of Jeonbuk's first team players were required to cut their club's training camp short and report to Turkey for three friendlies against Moldova, Jamaica and Latvia. It resulted in an uncharacteristically disjointed performance from the champions, with quick, incisive passing somewhat lacking in addition to a looming sense of lethargy. However, it would not be this that would be immediately blamed for their first half showing.

With Jeonbuk somewhat startled by the visitors' willingness to attack, goalkeeper Hong Jeong-nam proved largely responsibly for granting the J.League side two goals. The Jeonbuk 'keeper was out of contract in the winter and available for free agency, having also not featured in the run-in for the title last season. However, the player eventually re-signed around the same time his brother, defender Hong Jeong-ho, made the switch from Jiangsu Suning to Korea's North Jeolla province.

The first goal for the visitors came relatively early on, with Kashiwa's Ramon Lopes claiming the credit, though he was certainly assisted by some poor decision making on Jeonbuk's part. Lopes was played down the left wing into space, but still had a lot left to do. In a moment of what appeared to be panic, goalkeeper Hong Jeong-nam came out of his penalty box to try and close the winger down, despite centre back Kim Min-jae already moving across to close down the angle. Lopes simply lifted the ball over the onrushing Hong, and watched the ball bounce, then agonisingly trickle, into the bottom right corner of the goal.

The visitors' had doubled their lead fifteen minutes later. Again, space was found down the left for Kashiwa, an area that Choi Chul-soon should have been responsible for, with Kim Min-jae yet again being pulled out wide to cover the space vacated. This time it was Cristiano who picked out Ramon Lopes. The Brazilian looked to double his tally with a shot from just inside the area, but 'keeper Hong Jeong-nam parried it away direct to the the feet of the incoming Ataru Esaka, who tapped the ball into an empty net.

Kashiwa Reysol continued to push for a third, as the K League champions were left looking shell shocked, misplacing passes and striking poor efforts at goal as the half time whistle approached. Lee Seung-gi did bundle the ball into the net before half time, but it was rightly chalked off for a very clear offside.

The second half saw manager Choi Kang-hee send his men back out into the cold two minutes earlier than their Japanese counterparts. The manager had opted to replace the ineffective right back Choi Chul-soon with Lee Yong, and also remove captain and defensive midfielder Shin Hyung-min, with Lee Dong-gook coming off the bench to take the captain's armband and position himself alongside Kim Shin-wook in a 4-4-2 formation.

With all due credit to the manager, the change in shape and personnel breathed new life into the K League club. Jeonbuk began attacking their opponents with purpose, notably lifting the crowd in the stadium as they looked to salvage something from the match.

Hope for the home support did not take long to arrive. Lee Seung-gi won a corner in the 55th minute, to be taken by Lee Jae-sung. The attacking midfielder curled his effort into the penalty area, to be glanced in by Lee Dong-gook at the near post.

Despite now holding onto a slim lead, Kashiwa proceeded to press forward, nearly increasing their lead ten minutes later when Kim Jin-su was dispossessed and the Jeonbuk goalkeeper and defence were left scrambling. When the shot was eventually fired by Kei Koizumi, centre back Hong Jeong-ho had managed to get back to the goal line to clear the danger, before the incoming rebound by Ramon Lopes was dragged agonisingly wise.

Choi Kang-hee would respond with the introduction of new signing Tiago Alves, replacing Ricardo Lopes on the right wing. Whilst he would not light up proceedings to the heights that will eventually be expected of him, seeing him enter play in a Jeonbuk shirt did notably excite the crowd further.

Tiago would be involved in the equaliser however. The Brazilian lined up to take a direct free kick, awarded when Lee Dong-gook received an elbow to his face, but his shot struck the wall and lifted into the air. Towering striker Kim Shin-wook made sure to get something on the ball as it came down, kicking it over his head at the goal for it to be deflected towards the awaiting Kim Jin-su. The left back would bicycle kick the ball into the net from a few yards out and bring the K League champions level.

Jeonbuk goalkeeper Hong Jeong-nam would be called into action on two occasions shortly after, but perhaps with the scores now tied and his previous mistakes therefore corrected, the goalkeeper did well to keep both opportunities out; one being a long range effort and the other a powerful direct free kick from Cristiano.

With just seven minutes of time remaining, some could have forgiven Jeonbuk for taking the draw after working hard to earn it, yet their relentless pressing continued and reaped dividends in spectacular style. Hong Jeong-ho cleared the ball long down the left channel to what looked to be an offside Tiago. The Brazilian did not react nor interfere with play however, allowing Lee Dong-gook to pounce on the napping Kashiwa back line without fear of infringement. The striker took control of the ball turned and had time to await for reinforcements in the area. Seeing his opportunity however, the player struck a curling right footed shot into the top far corner with incredible finesse.

It may only have been the first game of the season, but the home support celebrated as if they had just won the tournament itself, and who can blame them given the match they had just witnessed. The game served as an advert for the competition as a whole, with two strong attacking sides both pressing well up until the final moments.

While the game as a whole may not be considered a champions-like performance from Jeonbuk, their attitude and determination in the latter half should be. It was a turnaround, set in motion by the manager's ability to react, and executed with the professionalism of a team that rarely knows no other way but victory.

Last year, all four K League sides never made it past the summer in the competition. With Jeonbuk finally back amongst the proceedings, not to mention a stellar Suwon squad and potentially attacking Ulsan and Jeju outfits, a repeat of Korean club disappointment would be very surprising based on these early exchanges.

Whisper it cautiously, but the K League may very well be back in Asia!

Lee Dong-gook celebrates with the fans after the full-time whistle. (image via Hyundai-MotorsFC.com)


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