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Taka Has Left the Island: What is Next for Jeju United?

It's hard to imagine that Jeju United is only one year removed from back to back appearances in the ACL.  The slide towards mediocrity has been incredible for the islanders, as currently only goal differential is keeping them out of the league cellar.  It wasn't long ago that this club was a force to be reckoned with in Korean football.  What will it take for them to rediscover their former prowess?  KLU's Branko Belan has a closer look.
(Image via of Goal.com)

It was only a few years ago that Jeju United was one of the most exciting teams to watch in the K League.  After finishing sixth in the table in 2015, much of the same was expected when 2016 came around.  No one could have predicted that the islanders were about to have their best season since 2010 when they finished league runners-up and went to the semifinals of the FA Cup.

The Birth of Tangerine Taka

With the likes of an experienced Lee Keun-ho, emerging star Ahn Hyun-beom and towering Kwon Han-jin anchoring the back line, Jeju had some significant pieces in place to be in contention with the best teams in the league.  There was also another man, who to this day has never been forgotten - striker Marcelo Toscano, who went on to score in double figures for the club that year.

Marcelo was worth the price of admission alone, but what the team developed over the course of that season was a level of chemistry that few teams in the league could match.  Their defensive record was astonishing, as they conceded 57 goals, but it rarely mattered as the team struck for three or more goals in a match on thirteen occasions en route to 71 as a group overall, terrorizing opposing back lines with reckless abandon.

One match in particular expressed these sentiments perfectly.  Jeju had finished in the top six by a comfortable margin and went head to head against Jeonnam Dragons on October 23rd on Matchday Two of five in the Championship Round.  It was a match that had everything - torrid weather, defensive lapses, and bags of goals, as Jeju struck for five that Sunday afternoon thanks to a brace from Ahn Hyun-beom, and singles from Kwon Soon-hyung, Lee Chang-min and Kwak Hae-seong.  Jeonnam scored three of their own, with Jair also finding the net twice while Choi Hyo-jin added one of his own.  It wasn't enough though, as Jeonnam were reduced to ten men with twenty minutes to go after Vedran Jugovic picked up his second yellow of the afternoon.

A third place finish meant automatic qualification to the ACL the following year, something not done since the 2011 season.  Drawn against Jiangsu Sainty, Gamba Osaka, and Adelaide United, it was sure to be a tough task.

After a loss to start their journey in the group phase, a pair of wins against Gamba, and in particular the 4-1 victory away from home, where Jeju ran roughshod on their Japanese opponents, and a 2-1 road success in the reverse fixture against Jiangsu Suning on Matchday Five put Jeju into the knockout stage for the first time in club history.

Standing in their way was Urawa Red Diamonds.  With the islanders playing the home leg first, Marcelo fired them into the lead after only seven minutes, and Jin Sung-wook added a second in injury time, presenting the belief that an upset could be on the cards.  Things unraveled in Japan however, as it took just over a half hour for their advantage to evaporate.

Urawa would leave it late, with the winner coming from an unlikely source, as Ryota Moriwaki found the back of the net in the 114th minute.  Jeju had already been reduced to ten men when Cho Yong-hyung was sent off with just under ten minutes left in regular time, but what happened at the end of the match is something that, as much as it would like to be forgotten, it simply can't be when another pair of Jeju players, Baek Dong-gyu and Kwon Han-jin were also given their marching orders just before the final whistle.

The rest of the league season went very much according to plan, as Jeju enjoyed a twelve match unbeaten run through the summer, which included signature wins over Ulsan at home and Suwon away, and Jeju were in a title hunt for the first time in what seemed like ages.  They ultimately fell short after a late season crushing loss to Jeonbuk at home stemmed the momentum they had built down the stretch.  Finishing runners-up in 2017 was certainly nothing to scoff at, and there was optimism that Jeju could finally count themselves among the league contenders instead of just a mid-table team.

Magno Cruz has been one of Jeju's best players since arriving at the club.
The 2017 season also saw the emergence of Magno Cruz, another Brazilian who joined the club from AC Goianiense prior to the season.  He would quickly become one of the faces of the franchise, as he also hit double digits in goals in his first year at the club.  He continues to be one of the brightest lights at the club to the present day, but there will always be pause to consider what if - he and Marcelo spent only the first part of the season together.  Marcelo left in June for Japanese side Omiya Ardija.  Had the two of them had the opportunity to play together over a longer term, one can only imagine what a devastating strike partnership it could have been.

Into a Downward Spiral

After a less than impressive appearance in the Champions League last season, things in the league seemed to be on the up once again, as Jeju were once again among the league's best going into the World Cup break.  A 3-2 win at the Big Bird when play resumed in July bumped them up to second, and another charge at a title looked possible.

It was then that the wheels fell off, as Jeju slumped through a fifteen match winless run, that had many considering Cho Sung-hwan's future as manager of the club.  Miraculously, however, Jeju managed to finish in the top half of the split, ending the season with three consecutive clean sheets, and no subsequent managerial change was made.

A lot of criticism aimed in Jeju's direction in 2018 centered around the fact that not enough was done to strengthen the squad before the season, so, seemingly with a new lease on life, the club indeed did quite a bit this off-season to bolster the side, bringing in Costa Rican international Elias Aguilar from Incheon United, securing the loan services of Yun Il-lok from Yokohama F Marinos, also a former K League champion with FC Seoul, and swapping in Jung Woo-jae for Jeong Tae-wook, although the former Daegu man has been limited to only a few appearances this year due to recovery from ACL surgery last year and a rib injury he sustained in only his second match against Incheon United in May.  He did return to face his former club recently.

Winless in nine to begin the year meant it was time to finally make a change on the sideline, as Cho resigned due to the poor string of results.  Former Jeju United player Choi Yun-kyum, who as a defender was a member of the 1989 championship squad then known as the Yukong Elephants, was appointed as his successor.

In nine matches under Choi, Jeju have won only twice, while drawing once and losing six, and are currently winless in five after drawing with Daegu last weekend following Cesinha's injury time equalizer.

How the rest of the season plays out remains to be seen, but it very much feels as if it is going to be a backs to the wall job the rest of the way if they are going to stave off relegation for the first time ever.

The sands in the hourglass are running thin - if there is any chance of salvaging what is left of this season, a new sense of pride needs to be instilled across the team.  Before they can win together, they have to learn how to play together.  Belief is a very important factor in success, and it is something they must find if they have the intention of staying in the top flight next season.  The rest of their season depends on it.

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