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2023 Preview: Can Gangwon FC push for AFC Champions League Qualification?

After 2022 saw Gangwon reach the top half for the first time since 2019, the provincial club will look to capitalise on high spirits as they aim to continue their forward momentum. K League United columnist Nathan Sartain examines the Bears’ chances of competing for AFC Champions League qualification, and if their prolific attack can be enough to push them forward.

Opening Thoughts

Last season was a real triumph for Gangwon. They recovered from a patchy start (and injury to key player Dino Islamovic) to finish in the top half, and at one point in the summer became the league’s entertainers. Home and away, the Bears turned into a side unfazed by whoever they were up against, and although incapable of mounting any sort of palpable challenge for AFC Champions League qualification, Gangwon gave proof that they belonged at the upper-echelon of the division. After almost facing relegation in 2021, it really felt like Choi Yong-soo had the provincial club back on track as 2022 progressed.

A Winter of Small Change

Moving on, if the winter of 2022 ushered in something of an overhaul for Gangwon, this time around it’s been a different story. Choi Yong-soo has favoured smart, shrewd additions to his squad, namely in positions that needed an extra layer of reinforcement. Kim Woo-seok will be expected to plug some of the team’s defensive weaknesses, Ikromjon Alibaev trusted to provide creativity from the centre of midfield, while Yu In-soo should compete for the starting left wing-back spot. Aside from that, Galego has made his loan move a permanent one, ensuring there’s another exciting attacking option in the ranks.

All Eyes on Yang Hyun-jun

After a headline-grabbing, accolade-attaining breakout season, 2022 K League 1 Young Player of the Year Yang Hyun-jun finds himself with increased responsibility at Gangwon. For the 20-year-old is no longer an unknown entity, but rather one of the club’s key players, and someone he himself acknowledges will be targeted by the defences of other teams.

That pressure, of course, won’t stunt or startle an ambitious player hungry for success. Yang Hyun-jun will know he’s a bona fide first-team mainstay now, and realise his improvements could be vital to the club he represents taking the next step in their ambitions. His eight goals and four assists from 2022 are there to be bettered, facets of the game like his composure undoubtedly worked on in pre-season.

But regardless of the surface level, watching Yang get closer to reaching his potential is something worth the intrigue. After all, football is meant to bring joy, and the sharp dribbler knows how to give fans plenty of it when at his confident best. If the 20-year-old really does - as is expected - increase his performance levels, this is the year for Gangwon fans to enjoy Yang Hyun-jun while they still can, as his ceiling appears to be a high one, and could well include a lucrative move overseas.

The Rest of Gangwon’s Attack

Aside from Yang Hyun-jun, Gangwon already possess one of the league’s more exciting attacks. For example, with Kim Dae-won, who scored 12 goals and assisted 13 in the league last year, the Bears have their own “ace,” a man at times capable of winning points on his own. The 26-year-old was a bright spot in a dark period during 2021, a proactive leader helping guide his teammates to top half in 2022, and now will be expected to maintain his eye-catching output once again in 2023.

Then, there's the matter of the returning Dino Islamovic. Before his season-ending achilles injury all the way back in March, the Montenegrin had all the hallmarks of a star signing, netting twice in 249 minutes of action, and generally looking like the dangerous target-man Choi Yong-soo desired to have at his disposal. Now, the challenge for Islamovic will be to get back in top condition, help the side, and provide an outlet for sharp wingers Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-jun to aim for.

In that regard though, having Lee Jeong-hyeop around helps. The former South Korea international had something of a mini rebirth in form last term, scoring five times between June and October. With regained conviction, the 31-year-old began to add a bit of firepower to his hard-working displays, and as such makes himself a solid option off the bench, or able to deputise whenever called upon. Similar can be said for Galego, who added a bit of variety to Choi Yong-soo's side, and chipped in with two hugely important goals himself (in addition to one more against Seongnam).

All in all, it's clear the forward-line of Gangwon is their strong-point, and is perhaps why Choi Yong-soo wants to favour a more "proactive brand" of football coming into this campaign. Should Alibaev also manage to offer some contributions of his own from midfield, the provincial club may be able to reach the same kind of high-scoring levels they were boasting back in the late '10s.

Will Defending Remain a Worry?

Despite all the praise for the offensive side of things, there’s one large question lingering over whether Gangwon can progress: will Choi Yong-soo find a way to fix his side’s leaky defence? There’s certainly instant reason to be sceptical, given the lack of a true replacement for former captain Lim Chai-min unfortunately meant the provincial club had the fourth-worst goals against tally (52) in K League 1 last year. On the flip side, however, there does seem to be room for optimism now, too.

Towards the tail-end of the previous campaign, the back three of Rim Chang-woo (Gangwon's new captain), Kim Young-bin, and Yun Suk-young finally appeared somewhat settled. Sure, there were still errors, but the defence's sometimes complementary play styles began to mesh in the right way, and as a result just eight goals were conceded in the Bears' final ten games (compared to 16 in the ten prior). Add to this the new addition of Kim Woo-seok, who will bring a bit more height to the backline, as well as a keen eye for a long pass and a willingness to get involved in duels, and there does seem to be hope that defensive woes can finally be a thing of the past for Gangwon.

So, Can Gangwon Do it?

An ACL Champions League spot does seem a bit out of reach for Gangwon, especially with the league looking more competitive and other comparable sides strengthening well, but then again reaching Final A last year seemed like a lofty goal at one point too. If Choi Yong-soo has brought anything to the Bears, it's endeavour, and you'd be wise not to discount the provincial club as they seek to show everyone they are capable of being the surprise package all over again, this time on an even larger scale.

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