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Tangerines Poised For Title Challenge as New Season Dawns

Jeju United enjoyed a mostly successful season in their return to the top flight in 2021, just missing out on a playoff placing in the Asian Champions League while finishing fourth.  Joo Min-kyu won the K League 1 Golden Boot and Nam Ki-il's side had one of the best defensive records in the division.  The winter transfer window has seen the arrivals of several new faces at the club and one key returnee.  Getting off to a good start will be key for their chances to contend in 2022.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the new season.

A Busy Winter

There will be a new look to the Tangerines as they prepare to open the new season this coming weekend.  Having fallen just short of their desired goal at the end of the last campaign, much was done to bolster the squad for the coming year.  Several new players have joined the club and one familiar face has returned for another spell on the island.  

For starters, there will be a new man between the sticks for Jeju this year in the form of Kim Dong-jun, who arrived from Daejeon Hana Citizen along with Lee Ji-sol, who should get some minutes in the center of defense.  Those acquisitions were part of a swap deal that saw Lee Chang-keun, Kim Young-wook, and Kwon Han-jin head the other way.  Choi Young-jun left Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to make the island his new home.  Kim Ju-gong came over from Gwangju FC and An Tae-hyun arrived from Bucheon FC 1995.  On paper, these additions alone would make Jeju a strong contender for the division crown, but two signings in particular created waves on either side of the window to date.

The Return of Yoon Bit-garam

Yoon Bit-garam in action for Jeju back in 2019.
In one of the biggest moves of the window so far, Yoon Bit-garam was announced by the club in early January and will be a critical piece to the team's plans this year.  This will be Yoon's fourth spell at the club.  He first came to Jeju from Seongnam FC in 2013 and stayed for two seasons before making a move to China.  Following his return, he spent the 2017 season at the club before heading off to do his military service with Sangju Sangmu.  He spent the final portion of the 2019 season with the team and then moved to Ulsan Hyundai ahead of the 2020 season, where he would help the Horangi lift their second Asian Champions League trophy, garnering MVP honors in the process.

Last season, he appeared 38 times for Ulsan, amassing five goals and six assists across all competitions.  Widely considered as one of the best attack-minded midfielders in the league, he is capable of playing in most forward positions, be it in the center of midfield or on the wings.  The dilemma, however, is where to insert him into the lineup, especially considering Jeju's tactical setup under Nam Ki-il.  The islanders have played a 3-4-3 formation in each of the past two years.  But, with a tight schedule owing largely to the World Cup in Qatar later this year, there is little doubt he will be given ample opportunities on the pitch.

New Foreign Signing: Jonathan Ring

Jonathan Ring will wear the number ten for the Tangerines this year.
Jeju's new number ten for the upcoming season will be Swedish winger Jonathan Ring, who spent last season with Kalmar FF in the Allsvenskan.  In 28 matches, he recorded eight goals and ten assists.  He is expected to eventually become a first eleven player, but as he arrived in the later stages of the window, his transition to his new surroundings may yet take some time.

Still, the prospect for success with the club is high - the pacy right winger has the tools to do well so long as he can adjust to the more physical playing style of K League defenders.  In his first interview with the club, he declared his intention to be a key contributor for his teammates and to deliver exciting football for the fans.  If he succeeds as Gerso Fernandes did in his first season last year, Jeju is primed to have one of the most potent attacking sides in the first division.

Lee Chang-min to Stay at the Club 

Lee Chang-min played his final match of 2021 against Daegu FC.
Lee Chang-min will forego his military service for the 2022 season and remain with the club, as confirmed by both the player and the team.  He missed the final four matches of last season because of a hamstring injury and is currently working his way back to full fitness.  He may not be fully ready for the new year, but the additions of Yoon Bit-garam and Choi Young-jun will certainly help as he returns to full health.  

In fact, Lee's decision to stay impacted the return of Yoon, and vice-versa.

"I spoke to Yoon on the phone before he made his decision to come back to Jeju, and told him if he did decide to return, that I would put off my military service for one more year and play for Jeju this season.  That's really how it happened," Lee said in a recent interview.

He also addressed the possibility of the two of them playing with Choi in midfield saying that it would be great if they could all start but that it was not a guarantee.  In any case, Jeju's central midfield has options.  Tactical considerations will be taken into account; Nam Ki-il will have to find a working formula.

First Opponent: Pohang Steelers

Pohang enters the new season on the heels of their ACL final appearance last year.  In the league, things did not go as planned, as they finished in the lower half of the table.  A major concern heading into the new campaign is the status of Kang Sang-woo with regards to if he will stay at the club or not.  The transfer window will remain open once the season begins, so there is still a chance he may be seeking a move, although a recent rumor he would be going to Jeonbuk has been quashed as the club has reportedly pulled out of the race to acquire his services.

Key arrivals to the club this winter include Yoon Pyung-guk, who will challenge Kang Hyun-moo for the number one job between the sticks, Park Chan-yong, who will likely occupy a role in central defense, Kim Ho-nam, who will be counted on in midfield, and Moses Ogbu, who will be key to the attack.

Ahead of this weekend's match, Park is the most likely starter among the four, featuring as one of the top defenders in K League 2 last year with Jeonnam Dragons.  Ogbu's signing for the club was confirmed just recently, so he will need more time to train with the team and acclimate himself before getting regular minutes.

Precipitation is expected on Saturday, meaning that conditions on the pitch could be difficult when the sides play the following day.

A Manager's Optimism

Nam Ki-il is confident his team can get off to a good start.
Nam Ki-il expressed his confidence in the team's ambitions ahead of the opening match.

"We are going to the top.  We are preparing ourselves to break the two-pronged monopoly of Jeonbuk and Ulsan.  Of course, Pohang is not an easy opponent.  Upon returning to the first division last year, our first victory was against Pohang," he said in a press release.  

"I regained my confidence as a manager after that victory.  I hope that we can once again achieve a great victory to give us confidence to open the season," he concluded.

Early Season Projection

Players celebrate Joo Min-kyu's winning goal against Suwon FC in the final home match of the season.
Jeju will play six matches before the end of March, with their second match next weekend also at home against Gangwon FC.  They then hit the road to face Suwon Samsung Bluewings, before back-to-back home dates against Suwon FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.  They finish out their March slate of matches with an away trip to FC Seoul. 

The islanders were particularly slow out of the gate last season, in fact recording just twenty-two points in the first half before going on a stunning run to close out the campaign to clinch a spot in the top half.  Starting well will be key for them if they want to be considered among the contenders for the league title in 2022.  A fast start would also give them confidence in getting a head start on their goal of qualifying for the ACL.  They have been touted as one of the favorites this campaign as challengers to Jeonbuk and Ulsan and will have to qualify that claim with strong performances.


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