Motors banking on 'home' advantage
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors begin their first ever intercontinental campaign on Monday, when they face Club America at Tokyo's National Stadium. This is the first time that a Mexican side has played on Japanese soil, but the Motors are no strangers to this island as they have played three times in the land of the rising sun.
Another interesting fact is that the Asian champions have never lost in Japan - winning one and drawing two of their three encounters over the past four years.
Back in 2002, the Motors drew 2-2 with Shimizu S-Pulse to advance on away goals to reach the semi-final of the Asian Cup Winners' Cup. Two years later in the AFC Champions League, Jubilo Iwata were the victims of a 4-2 thriller in Shizuoka, where Jeonbuk left it late to score two goals in the last four minutes. More recently in the same competition in May, Jeonbuk earned a 1-1 with Gamba Osaka to eliminate the home team in the group stage.
Jeonbuk's coach Choi Kang-Hee also vast experience of Japan while he was playing for Korea Republic or as an assistant coach. "I've been to theToyota Cup twice before," he said. "Although I couldn't take part in the tournament as a player, I watched the games with envy. I wished we could have invited those top quality teams to Korea as well."
So now the chance has come for him and his players to 'welcome' the representatives from the other continents. The Koreans don't have problems with time difference or maritime climate - and there is one more reason why they should feel like home.
"We are not even travelling with our cook this time because the Japanese food is quite similar to ours," said Choi, who has more food for thought ahead of the opening match.
Jeonbuk's success this year has been largely thanks to the performances their creative and pacy midfielders have shown. Wingers Yeom Ki-Hun and Kim Hyeung-Bum showed their worth to the team in the Champions League with crucial goals and dangerous free-kicks. Brazilian playmaker Botti has been consistent throughout the season while central midfielder Kwon Jip has finally settled down in his new club.
But as Yeom has been called up to the national team for the Asian Games football tournament in Doha, coach Choi had to reshuffle his cards. "Yeom Ki-Hun is going to be a hard act to follow," said the coach. "Nevertheless, we have many talented players to fill the gap: Chung Jung-Kwan, Kim Hyeung-Bum or Botti will be able to play in his place (on the left flank)."
To make matters worse, Kwon Jip injured in his left ankle during a training session on Monday and has been ruled out of the tournament. Choi is understandably anxious about the unexpected loss admitting: "This means we have few tactical options in midfield."
He could ask captain Kim Hyun-Su to perform a defensive role in midfield, or call on squad players such as Jang Ji-Hyun or Lim You-Hwan, who known for their goalscoring ability. Whoever starts on Monday's game will be asked to attack as Jeonbuk are not likely to deploy a defensive formation against the Mexicans.
"I know that Club America's three forwards exchange positions quite a lot during the game," said Choi. "We have been training for any situation so we can cope with their irregular tactics. I cannot tell you many things at the moment but we are not just going to just sit back and wait."