Return of the comeback kings
© AFP

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have earned the status of perennial challengers to win the AFC Champions League after winning the competition in 2006 and finishing runners-up last season. They have successfully shaken off the unwanted tag of underdogs on the domestic stage in the process, claiming the K-League titles in 2009 and 2011.

Even when they were pitted in a tough group containing the champions of China PR, Japan and Thailand earlier this year, few expected that the Motors would fall at the first hurdle despite the departure of long-serving coach Choi Kang-Hee in December. But as it turned out, the Korea Republic champions suffered an inexplicable slump under caretaker boss Lee Heung-Sil. The side fell to a 5-1 defeat at home against Guangzhou Evergrande, before going down by the same scoreline at the hands of Kashiwa Reysol in March.

Those disappointing results were partly due to their lack of depth in defence in particular, where they struggled to fill the void left by injured captain Cho Sung-Hwan. In his absence, veteran midfielder Kim Sang-Sik wore the armband to lead the Motors’ rearguard, with striker Jeong Shung-Hoon even tested in the centre of defence in some of the K-League matches. At the opposite end, centre forward Lee Dong-Gook remained uncharacteristically silent on the continental front, while setting all kinds of scoring records in the domestic league.

Arguably the most disappointed among the Jeonbuk players was inspirational midfielder Eninho. “We were one of the best teams in Asia and were confident after winning the national championship as well,” he told FIFA.com as he recalled the catastrophic start to the continental championship. “Probably we were overconfident. We thought we could beat any opponents we play against because we were strong. Such humiliating defeats came as a rude awakening for us, and we had to start over from square one.”

From bottom to top
Little hope seemed to be left for Jeonbuk ahead of their visit to surprise packages Buriram United, who had defeated Kashiwa and Guangzhou to sit comfortably on top of the section. Against all the odds, however, the Motors geared up on the road by beating Buriram 2-0 and then came from behind to defeat the Thais 3-2 with Lee Dong-Gook twice on target in the reverse fixture at home.

“It’s true that we also needed some time to adapt to the style of our new coach, which was slightly different from the one of our former boss,” Eninho explained. “But basically there was no big change in between as long as we stuck to attacking football, and we managed to regroup and believe in ourselves again.”

Jeonbuk went on to continue their habit of impressive comebacks winning their penultimate group match against Guangzhou earlier this month. Lee Sung-Hyun cancelled out the hosts’ opening goal in the first half, and despite being down to ten men midway through the second period, the Motors snatched all three points thanks to a quick-fire brace from Lee Dong-Gook deep into stoppage time.

It was not only sweet revenge for Jeonbuk, who with the result moved into pole position in Group H, but also a turning point for their top marksman. Lee struck four times on his Asian debut in 2010 before finishing as the competition’s top scorer with nine goals last season. And four goals so far this term has taken his overall tally to 17, just one shy of the milestone set by Leandro.

But for all these records, Jeonbuk’s priority is to win their group to gain home advantage in the one-off Round of 16 at the end of this month. Next up for the Motors is the final group game at home against Kashiwa on Tuesday.

“We won’t know the winners of this group until tomorrow’s match has finished,” coach Lee Heung-Sil said during the pre-match press conference on Monday. “Since we lost 5-1 to Kashiwa on the road they have the upper hand on goal difference. But we’ll play at home tomorrow and try to take all three points to get through.”