When Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors went all the way to the AFC Champions League final and claimed the coveted trophy in 2006, it was regarded by many commentators as the club’s first major silverware, with the trophy cabinet previously filled with just three Korean FA Cups. So even after their fairytale run five years ago, it has taken some time for the Motors to shake off the unwanted tag of ‘tournament specialists’, although they did earn a new nickname of ‘comeback kings’ in the process.
Indeed, resilience was seemingly a special trait for the Jeonju outfit as they survived a group featuring Japanese champions Gamba Osaka and Chinese counterparts Dalian Shide, before overcoming Shanghai Shenhua and Korean champions Ulsan Horangi en route to the 2006 final. It was therefore an unfamiliar situation for the underdogs to take a two-goal lead from the first leg into the return match in Homs, Syria, where they eventually defeated Al Karama 3-2 on aggregate to win the Asian crown.
The Motors, five years ago, were a defence-oriented unit that heavily relied on the quick counter-attacks led by Brazilian playmaker Botti and converted with opportunism by compatriot Ze Carlo. But their phenomenal campaign would not have been the same without the presence of two pacy wingers in the shape of Yeom Ki-Hun and Kim Hyeung-Bum, who often switched flanks causing all sorts of problems for opponents.
Strong mentality, of course, was also the key to the Motors’ unlikely success at that time. “When we won the Champions League five years ago, every game from the beginning of the group stage was like the final,” coach Choi Kang-Hee recalled in a press conference after reaching this year’s final. “We were so focused on the game itself and only realised we’d won the tournament after it was all over.”
From underdogs to favourites
Five years on, despite the departures of many veterans, Jeonbuk have transformed into a formidable side that have twice finished first in the K-League regular season, firstly in 2009, and again this year. While defenders Choi Chul-Soon, Lim You-Hwan and Jeon Kwang-Hwan may be the only survivors from the class of 2006 in the squad for Saturday’s final, the Brazilian influence remains strong with inspirational midfielders Eninho and Luiz Henrique pulling the strings. Meanwhile, new signing Lee Sung-Hyun and homegrown winger Seo Jung-Jin were the revelations of the season, with the midfield duo establishing themselves for both club and country.
However, arguably the most crucial reinforcements have been in the attacking department. Korea Republic striker Lee Dong-Gook, who topped the scoring chart with 22 goals in Jeonbuk’s title-winning season two years ago, is currently leading the continental table with nine goals, including four in a 6-1 quarter-final drubbing of Cerezo Osaka. Although the player also known as the Lion King might miss the final due to niggling injuries, coach Choi Kang-Hee still has a pair of contrasting trump cards to fill the possible gap, with towering Jeong Shung-Hoon or diminutive Kim Dong-Chan, both of whom joined the Motors at the start of this season, at his disposal.
With this richly talented squad, Choi believes the Motors are capable of winning more than just one trophy. “We set our goals to win the K-League and the Champions League during the pre-season training camp in Brazil and we’re strong enough to achieve that,” said Choi. “The lads have been well prepared and motivated as we’ve reached the finals of both competitions. I think we’re absolute favourites because we play hosts here [in Saturday’s final].”
Jeonbuk’s attack-minded approach to the game has seen them score more than one hundred goals in all competitions, including 31 in 11 Champions League matches. Their relentless forward play, “shut up and attack” as the local media describe it, paid dividends on the domestic front as well as at continental level. Now one of two finals is just around the corner, and the Motors are in top gear as they seek a historic double.