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Emerging striker puts injury behind, ready for fresh start

All Headlines 10:31 March 08, 2016

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- With the 2016 K League Classic football season looming, Ulsan Hyundai FC forward Lee Jeong-hyeop says a devastating injury is now behind him and he's ready to contribute to his new club.

Lee's solid season with Sangju Sangmu FC -- a second-division club of conscripted players -- was abruptly halted last August when he suffered broken cheekbones after jumping into the head of an opponent in a battle for the loose ball. He missed nearly two months of action.

Lee completed his military service in October and rejoined his original club, Busan IPark, for the final stretch of the season. After netting seven goals in 17 matches for Sangmu, Lee was held without a goal in three matches for Busan, which were relegated from the K League Classic to the second-tier K League Challenge.

The 24-year-old has since been loaned to Ulsan Hyundai, giving him a fresh start in the first-tier competition. After losing the league's reigning scoring champion Kim Shin-wook to rival Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the offseason, Ulsan, a disappointing seventh among a dozen teams last year, will be counting on Lee to be the go-to guy on the attack.

Speaking to Yonhap News Agency Monday ahead of the K League Classic preseason press conference, Lee said having to fill Kim's shoes won't add any extra pressure.

"We have some talented players on offense, and I won't have to carry the load all by myself," Lee said. "I will do the best I can while I am here (on loan) and help the club post a better record than last season."

Lee admitted to dealing with some mental blocks after returning to action, but it didn't take long to return to his usual, aggressive self.

"I found myself getting a bit tentative when battling opponents," Lee said. "But I soon realized I needed to get out of my own way. I am back to playing the old way."

Lee suffered that injury only two days after being named to the national team for September's World Cup qualifiers. Once a virtual unknown even to hard-core fans, Lee made headlines when national team boss Uli Stielike made him a surprise selection for the AFC Asian Cup squad in January.

Lee responded in faith by scoring two goals in six matches in the tournament, as South Korea finished second to Australia.

Lee remained a mainstay in Stielike's scheme, and made six more international appearances on the German's watch. He said getting called up for national team duties has been a major boost to his confidence and he feels a stronger sense of responsibility on and off the field.

After he was hurt, Lee said he tried to stay patient and not worry about missing the national team action.

"I didn't try to rush back from the injury," he recalled. "Since I was hurt anyway, I decided I would take things slowly."

South Korea have two matches scheduled in March in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. In Lee's absence, Seongnam FC forward Hwang Ui-jo and FC Porto attacker Suk Hyun-jun have stepped up in the goal scoring department.

Still, Lee said he will try to stay within himself and let things take care of themselves.

"I am not thinking about the national team yet," he said. "My club comes first. I have to play well for the club to be considered for the national team."

Lee will play his first match for Ulsan against his former club, Sangju Sangmu, at 4 p.m. Sunday. He claimed he has no particular feelings about meeting his former teammates, saying tersely, "I was discharged from the military last year."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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