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Recap: ACL Group Stage

Three of the four teams representing the K League in the 2018 AFC Champions League booked their places in the knockout rounds last week. Whilst Jeonbuk Hyundai and Suwon Bluewings topped their respective groups, and Ulsan Hyundai advanced as runners up, Jeju United crashed out, finishing bottom of the group. Our columnists assess their respective team's performance in the group stages and look ahead to what can be expected moving forward. 
(Image via K League)

Last year only Jeju United made it past the group stages and advance to the knockout rounds of the AFC Champions League with FC Seoul, Suwon Bluewings and Ulsan Hyundai all having lacklustre campaigns on the continent. In 2018, somewhat ironically, it is Jeju United who, after just one win and five defeats, are the only team not to advance. The 2016 Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai finished as winners of Group E, Ulsan Hyundai secured second place in Group F, and Suwon Bluewings topped what was a tight-looking Group H.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

Both Lee Donggook and Lopes have been key for Jeonbuk in their ACL campaign thus far. Image via K League

Forty-five minutes into the continental campaign and it seemed that the 2016 Champions had forgotten how to compete after their year of exile from the competition. The North Jeolla side found themselves two goals down on home turf to J.League side Kashiwa Reysol with few encouraging signs to suggest that they could turn this around. What happened next however has set the precedent for Jeonbuk's season ahead in all competitions. From the bench entered veteran striker Lee Dong-gook and turned the game on its head capping off the home side's superb fightback with a stunning winner to end the game 3-2 in the home side's favour.

Since then, the drive in this Jeonbuk team has rarely faltered, making easy work of their first three games, scoring fourteen goals in the process. Whilst the 4-2 defeat away to Tianjin denied them guaranteed qualification after just four matches, Jeonbuk ran out comfortable victors in their two remaining fixtures to leave them with fifteen points comfortably atop of the group, setting up a knockout round date with Thai Premier League side Buriram United.

Choi Kang-hee and his team have singled this competition out as the one they want to win. If they do so, they will claim back a trophy that they feel aggrieved they were forbidden to defend last year. So far, the club's performances have echoed that frustration, with them at times playing like a side thoroughly brassed off at their treatment by the AFC governing bodies. Given the substantial investment and recruitment in the off season, anything short of triumph in Asia will be deemed a failure. However, having seen their displays so far, you would have to believe they are one of the favourites to lift the trophy.

by Matthew Binns

Ulsan Hyundai

Junior Negao celebrates after scoring in the 6-2 win over Melbourne Victory. Image via K League
On paper it looked like Ulsan Hyundai would struggle to get out of Group F when the draw was made back in December. They faced the reigning J.League Champions and 2017 ACL quarter-finalists Kawasaki Frontale, Chinese Super League outfit Shanghai SIPG with their world-class Brazilian trio, and a gruelling midweek flight Down Under to face Melbourne Victory. The fact the Horangi qualified with a game to spare whilst also playing some very entertaining football was truly impressive.

Manager Kim Do-hoon seems to be taking the competition a lot more seriously this time around. He rested his entire first-choice lineup before the home game against Shanghai, and his expansive tactics, particularly against Melbourne, were indicative of a man whose team is in it to win it.

Ulsan's next ACL opponents are K League rivals Suwon Samsung Bluewings - and their manager Seo Jung-won is certain to have taken note of Kim's improved attitude to the competition. And so Seo will face a dilemma before his team travels down to Munsu for the first leg on May 9th as both sides have derbies the Saturday before - Ulsan host Pohang Steelers while the Bluewings have the ever-crucial Super Match with FC Seoul. Kim Do-hoon has shown he is willing to sacrifice K League points to improve his team's chances of ACL progression. Will Suwon fans be happy if  Seo does the same? It will be fascinating to see.

Jeju United

A frustrated Magno Cruz during Jeju United's home defeat to Buriram United. Image via K League
Jeju United entered action in Group G knowing they had a tough draw ahead of them, being pitted against former two-time champions Guangzhou Evergrande from China, Thai giants Buriram United, and a tricky outfit in Cerezo Osaka from Japan who entered the competition as domestic double cup winners.

The opener on home ground against the Japanese side would turn out to be indicative of how this year's campaign would go as Jeju were defeated courtesy of a last-gasp winner in injury time, harking back to last season when they suffered the exact same fate against Jiangsu Suning in their opening match, also at home.  It was then off to Thailand to face the four-time Thai champions, and although Jeju managed to get the win, the performance itself was wholly unconvincing, despite the positive thoughts which were directed their way after the victory.

The away fixture with Guangzhou was where the wheels fully came off. Ahead by two goals, Alan was given enough space in the box to pull a goal back for the hosts on the stroke of halftime, and Guangzhou found another gear in the second half to completely erase any doubt of the final result, winning comfortably by a pair of goals. They also took the reverse fixture by the same margin, and by then, the writing was already on the wall for the island side.

The final pair of group matches did little at all to yield better results, as Buriram's win on the final matchday would seal their progress through to the knockout stages. The only consistent bright spot for Jeju in this year's continental campaign was Lee Chang-min, who also had a spell with the Korean national team during the international break in March. With now only domestic matters on the radar, he will be key to the team's success the rest of the season. A return to the ACL next season is highly unlikely at this point, but if Jeju catch fire the way they did through the summer months last year, they may not entirely be out of the conversation just yet.

by Branko Belan

Suwon Samsung Bluewings

Image via K League
Suwon Bluewings progressed to the knockout stages of the ACL for the first time since 2015, finishing top of Group H. They failed to win a single home game (curiously none of the teams in that group won a home game) but their impressive three wins on the road saw them through. An impressive last game performance in Japan against Kashima Antlers was enough to undo the damage caused from their 4-1 defeat at home to Sydney FC and sets them in good stead going into their round of 16 game against K League rivals Ulsan Hyundai.

Besides from that almost catastrophic defeat to Sydney at home Suwon have looked in good nick and even though they only registered one point from their three home games, they still produced some decent moments of football in the games at home to Kashima Antlers and Shanghai Shenhua. But it was their accomplished, assured, and most importantly, attacking displays away from home that allowed Suwon to progress from a tough-looking group.

By Scott Whitelock

For all the results, scorers and much more our ACL Group Stage Guide: here

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