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(News Focus) Star forwards spice up new football season

All Headlines 08:00 March 11, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, March 11 (Yonhap) -- Familiar foreign strikers and local heavyweights are to battle for the top scoring title in South Korea's first division football league this season, but their closest rivals could lie within their club.

Twelve teams in the K League Classic start their nine-month journey this weekend with two-time defending champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors again the top dogs, while reigning Korean Football Association (FA) Cup winner FC Seoul are considered the top challenger to dethrone Jeonbuk.

Fans are also likely to see league's top scorer come from one of these two title contenders.

In a recent survey from the league office asking the head coaches and captains at each of the 12 clubs about the potential top scorer this season, Jeonbuk Hyundai's new recruit Kim Shin-wook was named the top pick, earning 26 points. He edged out FC Seoul's forward Dejan Damjanovic by five points.

A vote for first place is worth two points, while a second place vote is equal to a point. Suwon FC didn't participate in the survey and voters couldn't pick their own club.

Kim is the defending top scorer after netting 18 goals in 38 matches with Ulsan Hyundai FC last season. The 27-year-old forward, who has bagged 95 goals in the last seven seasons, will likely have better offensive support at Jeonbuk this season, thanks to their splendid talent on the squad.

Jeonbuk this winter brought in Brazilian forward Ricardo Lopes, who had the league's second-best 11 assists with Jeju United last season, and former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung, who will show his skills in April once he recovers from an ankle injury. With reigning Young Player of the Year-winning midfielder Lee Jae-sung and skillful Brazilian Leonardo remaining with the team, Kim will have plenty of deliveries from behind or the flanks during which he can take advantage of his 196-centimeter height.

But one hurdle to Kim's second straight title run is his veteran teammate Lee Dong-gook, the all-time leading scorer of the K League and the reigning league MVP. The 36-year-old Lee, who had 13 goals in 33 matches last season, received the third highest points in the K League survey with eight.

Lee's existence means that Kim might not get more playing time than when he was with Ulsan. In Jeonbuk's recent two matches at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, Kim and Lee shared the starting role as head coach Choi Kang-hee used 4-2-3-1 formation from the beginning.

The two big strikers were not allowed to play together until the second half in both of the AFC Champions League (ACL) matches.

Choi already hinted that two players could share playing time throughout the season, which is good for the team, but not favorable if a player wants to notch many goals.

"We have to play both K League Classic and AFC Champions League, but Lee can't play upfront all alone," Choi said at the K League Classic media day event on Monday. "We are considering many options on how to utilize those two players."

Kim and Lee have already said that they have no problem playing together. Kim, the 2013 league MVP, even said that he would not be disappointed if he is on the bench because of Lee.

"If we play together, our opponents' defense will split and that will also give chances to our attacking midfielders," Kim said.

Damajanovic is worth mentioning as a top scorer candidate. He won the Golden Boot honor for three-straight seasons from 2011-13 and is the all-time leading foreign scorer in the South Korean league with 141 goals over seven seasons.

After spending two years in China, Damjanovic has returned to Seoul, going for his fourth scoring title in the K League Classic. But the 34-year-old Montenegrin might face the same situation as Kim. If not Jeonbuk's South Korean strikers, Damjanovic could see his closest rival in his own club.

Seoul's Brazilian striker Adriano, last season's second top scorer after netting 15 goals in 30 matches, has already shown his fire power at the ACL where he knocked in seven goals in two matches. Damjanovic scored only once in those two matches.

But what is different from Jeonbuk's situation is that both players have been given equal chances to start the match. Seoul in two ACL matches used the 3-5-2 formation, putting Damjanovic and Adriano upfront together. Though their status could change if former Arsenal forward Park Chu-young fully recovers from injuries, the two foreigners are aiming to be the most powerful attacking duo in the K League Classic.

Damjanovic, who made his K League debut in 2007 with Incheon United, said that he will be focusing everything on his team's victory and he did well in previous ACL matches in creating spaces for Adriano to score. But the 2012 K League MVP didn't hide his ambition to score goals.

"Although I'm helping Adriano now, he will also support me at one point," he said. "I'm still confident to score goals when I get the chances."

Seoul head coach Choi Yong-soo said that he will not favor any of the attackers in the squad. The 42-year-old coach acknowledged that Adriano has the leading pace, but what he expects is competition in good faith.

"I hope the three (Damjanovic, Adriano, Park) help each other, but at the same time there should be tension," he said. "We don't know when Adriano's scoring pace would go down and at that time, other players should step up to fill his void."

Outside Jeonbuk and Seoul players, South Korean national team striker Lee Jeong-hyeop, who has been a regular selection of head coach Uli Stielike, is also a top scorer candidate.

Lee aims for a fresh start with his new club. After discharging from the military and suffering broken cheekbones, Lee saw his club Busan IPark FC relegated to the second-division K League Challenge at the end of last season.

Putting aside last year's memory, the 24-year-old is now with Ulsan Hyundai FC on loan from Busan. Lee's first task will be to fill the void of reigning top scorer Kim Shin-wook who left for Jeonbuk, but he said there are no worries because the team recruited talented players this winter to support him. Ulsan, which finished seventh last year, brought in former CSKA Moscow winger Kim In-sung and midfielder Seo Jung-jin from Suwon Samsung Bluewings on loan.

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

Seongnam FC striker Hwang Ui-jo, who is starting his fourth season in the K League Classic, is hoping to perform better than last season. The 23-year-old last year bagged 15 goals in 34 league matches to finish third in scoring. His career-best performance also lifted him to the South Korea national team.

His club Seongnam didn't have big reinforcements this offseason, but Hwang knows he needs to score for the team. For the first time in the league's 33-year history goals scored will be the first tiebreaker in the standings, ahead of goal difference, meaning that the strikers' role has become much more important.

"As a striker, it's obvious to be greedy for scoring goals," he said at the K League Classic media day event on Monday. "However, I won't show it on the pitch because you can't actually score goals when you are selfish."

In K League history, South Korean players have won the scoring title 21 times, while foreigners took it 12. But since 2000, non-Korean players topped the scoring 10 times.

"Players like Adriano are making big expectations for this season by showing good sense of scoring from the start," said Kim Tae-ryung, a football commentator at Korea Broadcasting System. "These high-class forwards will obviously play tight race till the middle of the season."

kdon@yna.co.kr
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