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Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Claim Sixth K League Title

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Claim Sixth K League 1 Title
Sunday evening saw Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors claim their sixth K League title with an incredible six games to spare. A dramatic 2-2 encounter against Ulsan Hyundai, with a familiar face grabbing the headlines, ensured that the North Jeolla side held onto their crown for another year and build upon the dynasty they continue to forge in Korean football.

Lee Dong-gook's late penalty on Sunday evening saw the veteran striker play the hero for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors once more, calmly placing an equalising penalty beyond Ulsan ‘keeper Kim Yong-dae to claim the club’s sixth K League title with six rounds of fixtures left to play, leaving the travelling fans jubilant ahead of their trip back to Jeonju

A draw was all that required in the end for the North Jeolla side. Having only needed to obtain a point more than Gyeongnam FC, the players would have likely been aware moments before kick-off that The Reds had sunk to a late defeat at home to Jeju United. The news would have also been welcome amongst the home side, who stood to potentially leap up to second place with a large enough victory.

Perhaps knowing this, Jeonbuk approached the first half with some trepidation, sitting back and allowing Ulsan time on the ball. A rare venture not long after the half-hour mark almost backfired when a dangerous backpass from Choi Bo-kyung was pounced upon by Ulsan's Kim In-sung, requiring goalkeeper Song Beom-keun to stray far from his penalty area to slide tackle the midfielder.

After a closely fought, goalless first half, Jeonbuk winger Ricardo Lopes was introduced into proceedings not long into the second. The Brazilian had almost an instant impact, collecting the ball in central midfield, dribbling past two Ulsan players and firing a low shot from range into the bottom-left corner.

The festivities were short-lived, however, as four minutes later Han Seung-gyu had equalised for the home side. An excellent back-heeled through ball from Kim In-sung played Han through and, with just Song Beom-keun to beat, made no mistake from close range.

Still, with only a draw required, Jeonbuk only needed to hold on. Yet, with the possibility of closing in on Gyeongnam in second place, Ulsan continued to press well and pose questions of their visitors. In the 81st minute, the league's third highest goalscorer, Junior, shot from range. His stung the palms of 'keeper Song, only for the ball to spill out into the path of an awaiting Kim In-sung.

With the champagne seemingly put back on ice for another round, Choi Kang-hee's men went in search of an equaliser. The goal was to be self-inflicted by the Horang-though. Ulsan defender Kang Min-soo caught Hong Jeong-ho in the box, forcing the referee to point to the spot. Lee Dong-gook stepped up and duly delivered, putting to rest his miss in last month’s Champions League quarter-final, and ensuring that the K League trophy remains in Jeonju for another year.

Highlights from the match can be viewed here.

Lee Dong-gook's 300th Goal

It has been another remarkable season for Lee Dong-gook, one worthy of special mention again. His 93rd-minute goal in Ulsan marked the player’s 300th career goal, accounting for his time in competitions for his other clubs and his appearances for the Korean National Team.

Furthermore, the striker, who turned 39 earlier in the year, is currently his club’s leading scorer with twelve league goals this season and a further four in the AFC Champions League. This year has also seen him break double digits in league goals for the tenth consecutive season, all of which have been since joining Jeonbuk in 2009.

More impressively, Lee currently finds himself as the second highest Korean scorer in the league this season, only bettered by Incheon United’s Moon Seon-min. It is a feat that serves as a testament to the player’s proficiency while sadly a damning indictment of the lack of young domestic strike options plying their trade in the K League at present.

This season has also seen Lee Dong-gook’s game time carefully managed once more for maximum effect. The player has only found himself in the starting eleven on nine occasions in the league this year, yet has found his services called upon from the bench twenty times. While his conversion into a super-sub had begun during the two previous seasons, this campaign has seen Lee embrace his role to devastating effect.

Lee continues to fend off questions about his retirement on almost a yearly basis, yet as long as he continues to perform above his peers, and as long he feels he still has something to give, there is no reason why the ‘The Lion King’ cannot continue to roar for a season more.

A Record Breaking Season?

When looking back at the 2018 K League season, it will seem that eleven out of twelve teams once again fought with one another whilst the other side eased to victory and watched from afar. After having led the division since its early rounds, the coronation of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors had always seemed more of a formality than a declaration. Once they wrestled their way into pole position, they never looked like loosening their hold.

While the name that will be engraved on the trophy will ultimately raise few eyebrows, it risks overlooking the manner in which this title has been achieved. This year's champions have surpassed their own lofty standards by a notable margin, leaving the rest wondering what they can do to compete. Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee set out to build a team designed to conquer Asia but results elsewhere meant he was ultimately left to trample over familiar stomping grounds yet again.

Since the reformat into the split system, no team has ever claimed the title with so many games remaining. In fact, no team has ever claimed the league before the split, although Jeonbuk also came closest in 2016 only for a points deduction to be enforced twenty-four hours before they could win the league with five matches remaining. This victory though even surpasses what that year could have been.

With six games to spare, manager Choi Kang-hee now has the possibility to try and break the club's (and his) own records. Jeonbuk currently require eleven more points (83) and nine more goals (74) for this trophy to be deemed their most emphatic victory. While their current goal-scoring record actually stands at 82, this was obtained in a lengthier 44 match season back in 2012 and would require some effort to surpass.

In terms of their defensive record, Jeonbuk have conceded just 26 goals in 32 matches, with roughly half of them being allowed when first choice 'keeper Song Beom-keun was unavailable. In fact, Song leads the golden glove race with an incredible 17 clean sheets, an impressive feat for a 20-year-old in his first professional season. Jeonbuk's lowest goals conceded record stands at 22 however, meaning that breaking this record will have to wait for another season.

However, the manager may also choose to use these final rounds more wisely, and start to field youth talents who have not had much opportunity for game time this season. The manager has shown faith in a number of youngsters in the last few seasons, and with the requirement to improve once more in 2019, he has ample time to begin identifying which players can make the step up next year.

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