Asian club football champs looking to regain control of domestic league

Mia Lee, May 4, 2017, 9:37 a.m.


South Korean football powerhouse Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will try to regain control of the domestic league this weekend with a rebound from stunning defeats. Jeonbuk have been one of the elite clubs in the top-tier K League Classic in recent years. Led by head coach Choi Kang-hee, they won back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015. Jeonbuk could have completed a three-peat last year, but they ended up second after suffering a nine-point deduction from the league over a bribery scandal. In 2016, however, Jeonbuk, claimed the Asian Football Confederation Champions League title for the first time in 10 years after defeating Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates.

The bribery scandal -- involving one of their scouts who was convicted of bribing referees in 2013 -- eventually cost Jeonbuk's AFC Champions League title defense, and the club had to focus on winning the K League and the Korea Football Association Cup double this year.

Jeonbuk's 2017 goal seemed to be right on track as they took early lead in the 16-team league. However, they started to fall apart in recent weeks.

Jeonbuk first got knocked out from the FA Cup on April 19 after losing to second division club Bucheon FC via a shootout. Jeonbuk recovered from the FA Cup shock after beating Pohang Steelers 2-0 in their K League match on April 22, but it turned out more suffering was waiting.

Last Sunday, Jeonbuk picked up their first league loss of the season with a 1-0 defeat to Gwangju FC. It was the first time that Jeonbuk fell to Gwangju in their club history.

On Wednesday, Jeonbuk were blanked by Jeju United 4-0 at home, which was the first time since 2005 that the club suffered a four-goal margin defeat in the K League. The latest loss also forced Jeonbuk give away their top position in the standings to Jeju. Both Jeju and Jeonbuk have 17 points from five wins, two draws and two losses, but the former has the tiebreaking edge on goals scored.

Last year, Jeonbuk had only two defeats in 38 K League matches, but this season, they've already been beaten two times.  

Choi's side can end their losing streak on Saturday against newly promoted Daegu FC on the road. However, it still remains in question whether they can dominate the league like in the past.

Jeonbuk lost several key players this winter, such as veteran goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae and Brazilian attacker Leonardo Rodrigues Pereira. The four-time K League champions did bring on new players, including former Hoffenheim left back Kim Jin-su, but it seems their competitiveness isn't like the past season.

Jeonbuk said their recent slump was the absence of the key players following suspension and injury. Against Jeju, Jeonbuk full backs Choi Chul-soon and Kim Jin-su couldn't start due to yellow card accumulations in previous matches, while defender Lee Yong was dropped from the squad due to an ankle injury. In addition, the Jeonju-based club already lost attacking midfielders Ricardo Lopes and Lee Jae-sung to injuries at the beginning of the season.

"It's my job to get the team back on track," Jeonbuk head coach Choi said after the match against Jeju. "Once we see the players recovered from their injuries, we will try to show better performance." 

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