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Jeonbuk gunning for three-peat after busy winter

All Headlines 06:00 March 07, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have won South Korea's top-tier football league the last two years, but that clearly didn't satisfy the club. After a busy offseason, Jeonbuk have come back much stronger this time, primed for a three-peat.

Over the winter, Jeonbuk signed a slew of local big names for the squad, which some local fans are now even calling "Real Jeonbuk" or "Bayern Jeonbuk," comparing the four-time K League Classic champ to star-studded Spanish giant Real Madrid and German champion Bayern Munich.

Collecting top players from other domestic clubs has made Jeonbuk the public enemy in the K League Classic, but that doesn't change their top dog status this year. Jeonbuk now aims for three straight titles at the K League Classic and 11 other clubs, including the beefed-up FC Seoul, will try to stop them when the new season kicks off this weekend.

Since the professional league started in 1983, only Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (now Seongnam FC) have lifted the league trophy for three consecutive seasons, from 2001 to 2003.

Jeonbuk's new faces this season include striker Kim Shin-wook, the league's reigning scoring champion with Ulsan Hyundai FC, former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung, and veteran right back Kim Chang-soo. Jeonbuk have also brought in forwards Lee Jong-ho from regional rival Jeonnam Dragons, former K League Young Player of the Year winner Go Moo-yul from the Pohang Steelers, and Brazilian forward Ricardo Lopes, who had 11 goals and 11 assists with Jeju United last year.

Though they lost defender Kim Kee-hee to Shanghai Shenhua after receiving a league record US$6 million transfer fee from the Chinese club, Jeonbuk hope that new signings on defense -- centerback Lim Jong-eun and Australian defensive midfielder Erik Paartalu -- to stabilize their backline.

With existing players like striker Lee Dong-gook, the all-time leading scorer in the K League Classic and four-time league MVP, and midfielder Lee Jae-sung, who was named best young player in the league last year, Jeonbuk head coach Choi Kang-hee said their goal is to defend the K League Classic title and also to win the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

"We have won the league the last two years, but couldn't show our unique playing style," Choi said. "What's certain for this year is that we have a stronger squad than in the past two years."

Other teams acknowledge Jeonbuk are the favorites. In a recent survey from the league office asking head coaches and captains at each of the 12 clubs about the potential league winner this season, Jeonbuk earned 18 out of 20 possible first-place votes. Suwon FC didn't participate in the survey and voters couldn't pick their own club.

Only FC Seoul head coach Choi Yong-soo and Seongnam FC boss Kim Hak-bum didn't pick Jeonbuk as the frontrunner.

Jeonbuk coach Choi voted for FC Seoul, more than a reasonable choice.

This season, FC Seoul are considered the most promising force to dethrone Jeonbuk, thanks to their upgraded offense featuring striker Dejan Damjanovic. The Montenegrin international was the K League Classic's top scorer for three straight seasons from 2011-13 when he was playing for Seoul. He spent the past two years in China, and is now back in Seoul to complete a formidable front line with Brazilian striker Adriano, last season's second top scorer, and former Arsenal forward Park Chu-young.

Seoul, which finished fourth last season, have already displayed their firepower at the AFC Champions League, where they poured 10 goals in two matches against Thai champion Buriram United and Japanese league winner Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Adriano has scored seven of the team's 10 goals.

The reigning Football Association (FA) Cup champion also added skillful midfielder Sin Jin-ho and anchorman Ju Se-jong to boost their middle line, while defender Jeong In-hwan, formerly of the Chinese Super League, and ex-Incheon United goalkeeper Yoo Hyun have beefed up their defense.

"We are not just going to see Jeonbuk's rally this season," Seoul head coach Choi said. "We will gear up our players' condition to 100 percent and make an offensive team that can score two goals if we concede one."

The Suwon Samsung Bluewings, runner-up in the last two seasons behind Jeonbuk, didn't have big signings this offseason, but brought in veterans to mingle with their talented young players. One-time Wigan Athletic midfielder Cho Won-hee and defender Lee Jung-soo, who spent the last five years with Qatar's Al Sadd, have returned to their old team for the first time since 2008.

They will join two key left-footed midfielders -- Yeom Ki-hun and Kwon Chang-hoon -- who are likely to determine Suwon's fate this season. Yeom was last year's league leader in assists, while Kwon has been a pivotal player for both South Korean national and under-23 teams.

The Pohang Steelers, No. 3 last year, are also considered title contenders with new coach Choi Jin-cheul, who led South Korea to the round of 16 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile last year.

The five-time league champion, on the other hand, lost a handful of regulars like midfielder Sin Jin-ho and forwards Kim Seung-dae and Go Moo-yul. But they have shown through the AFC Champions League (ACL) matches that they still have the power to compete. Pohang have held defending Asian champion Guangzhou Evergrande to a draw and beat Japan's Urawa Reds Diamonds at the continent's top club competition so far this year.

Seongnam FC and Jeju United last season played in the upper tier, or Group A, under the league's split system after 33 rounds. They will try to do it again and this time are possibly aiming for the ACL ticket -- awarded to the top two teams and the FA Cup winner -- after adding new offensive weapons from overseas.

Seongnam brought in Argentine attacking midfielder Miguel Sebastian Garcia, who will be called "Pitu" here, and midfielder Hwang Jin-sung to support striker Hwang Ui-jo, last year's third top scorer. Jeju inked deals with Brazilian forwards Marcelo and Moises to fill the void of Lopes and midfielder Yoon Bitgaram who left for China.

Ulsan Hyundai FC, which settled for the lower tier, or Group B, last year, are considered the dark horse. Though the team's main striker Kim Shin-wook left for Jeonbuk, they have filled his shoes by signing South Korean international forward Lee Jeong-hyeop from Busan IPark FC. The two-time K League Classic winner also acquired former CSKA Moscow winger Kim In-sung and veteran goalkeeper Kim Yong-dae from Seoul, who will patch the absence of Kim Seung-gyu, now with Japan's Vissel Kobe.

Incheon United and the Jeonnam Dragons are seeking to play in the upper tier, though their squads aren't as glamorous as other teams. Gwangju FC will seek to remain in the top division just like the two clubs that gained promotions from the second-tier K League Challenge, Sangju Sangmu FC and Suwon FC.

Sangju Sangmu, a military club, saw many of their regular players complete their mandatory service and return to their former teams, while Suwon FC lost foreign players who played pivotal roles in earning the promotion.

Suwon FC's fate will likely depend on the performances of their high-profile foreign signings: former Belgian international striker Marvin Ogunjimi, Australian center back Adrian Leijer and Spanish midfielder Jaime Gavilan, who is best known for playing with Valencia and Levante in the Spanish La Liga.

kdon@yna.co.kr
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