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Coach of football title favorites prefers spotlight on rivals

All Headlines 14:44 March 07, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors may be the prohibitive favorite to win their third straight championship in the top South Korean football league, but their head coach Choi Kang-hee said Monday he'd rather see rival clubs get more of the spotlight.

After a series of offseason moves that added depth to an already strong squad, Jeonbuk -- now dubbed "Real Jeonbuk" after Spanish giants Real Madrid -- seem poised for their third straight K League Classic title.

Yet they're off to a rocky start at another major competition, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. They won their first group match over Tokyo FC 2-1 but lost to Jiangsu FC 3-2 on the road last week.

In the meantime, FC Seoul, considered the biggest threat to Jeonbuk's title aspirations, have won both of their matches and have looked dominant in doing so. They routed Buriram United 6-0 and defeated Sanfrecce Hiroshima 4-1.

FC Seoul are getting more love from pundits, and Choi wouldn't have it any other way.

"After our first two matches in the Champions League, I think we've all seen that we shouldn't be considered the top contender," Choi said with a wry smile in a group interview ahead of the K League Classic preseason press conference. "I think we should all focus on FC Seoul."

The glib 56-year-old, the only K League coach with four championship rings, has been singing the same tune the past few seasons. It's all part of his strategy to deflect attention to other clubs and to lift the burden of expectations on his own players.

Try as he might, Choi and his charge will still be under heavy scrutiny. They've added reigning league scoring champion Kim Shin-wook to their offense, and former Premier Leaguer Kim Bo-kyung to their midfield. Among the incumbents, the 2015 league MVP Lee Dong-gook, the K League's all-time leading scorer, and reigning Rookie of the Year Lee Jae-sung can be counted on for another productive season together.

To his credit, Choi does have cause for concern. In the Champions League loss to Jiangsu, Jeonbuk's centerbacks, Kim Hyung-il and Lim Jong-eun, were badly exposed. Choi said the loss of former stalwart Kim Kee-hee to Shanghai Shenhua during the offseason hurts more than he'd feared.

"Our defense was quite shaky, and I think the problem is more mental than physical," the coach assessed. "I think Kim Hyung-il has to be a better leader on defense. Lim Jong-eun is playing in his first Champions League, and he's not been able to handle the nerves. They've been fine at practice."

Choi offered that it may be more difficult for a deep club like Jeonbuk to build cohesion because he has to constantly tinker with his lineup to find the right combination.

"Shallow teams have to stick to their best 11 players on a consistent basis," he noted. "With our team, I have so many options that it'll take time to find the perfect chemistry."

Jeonbuk will open their K League Classic season against FC Seoul at home, Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, on Saturday. If Choi's defenders don't get their act together, they could be in for a long day against the deadly FC Seoul duo of Adriano and Dejan Damjanovic.

Adriano, who netted 15 goals in league play last year, has already scored seven goals in two AFC Champions League matches. Damjanovic, who has rejoined Seoul after two years in China, has contributed a goal. When former South Korean international Park Chu-young returns to his form, FC Seoul's offense just may have the most fire power in the league.

"With Adriano and Dejan, they have two guys who can finish around the net," Choi said. "They have an edge over our club in that department."

Jeonbuk's offense won't be too shabby with Lee Dong-gook, at 36, still going strong. Choi apparently doesn't agree, quipping, "Lee Dong-gook is getting old."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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