Trio’s dominance under fire
Over the past few years, three teams based in or around the Korea Republic capital have established themselves as perennial candidates to win the K-League. In fact, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, FC Seoul, and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma claimed the top three positions on the table last season, with Suwon capturing their fourth title after defeating arch-rivals Seoul in a two-legged championship series.
Having narrowly missed an opportunity to collect their eighth trophy last year, Seongnam were quick to appoint Chunma legend Shin Tae-Yong, who won six titles with the club. Much then is expected of Shin with the former captain preparing his charges for this weekend's season opener away to Daegu.
Reigning champions Suwon begin their title defence, with a tough home fixture against Korean FA Cup holders Pohang Steelers, while Seoul travels down to Gwangyang to face Chunnam Dragons. But arguably the biggest match of the opening round involves the league's latest addition Gangwon FC, who welcome Jeju United to Gangneung.
New coaches aiming high
Although Gangwon are not tipped by many as a force to challenge the ‘big three' the East Coast outfit will be hoping to make an impact in their debut season. "We will try to make a wave in the league because we are newcomers," said coach Choi Soon-Ho, who once held the reins at Pohang before leading Ulsan Mipo Dockyard into the second division championship last season. "I was so eager to show off something that I failed to achieve what I wanted with Pohang, but now I have the experience and know how of winning the game and training the team."
His confidence was echoed by Kim Ho-Gon, who had just returned from a six-year spell as a director at the Korea Football Association to coach Ulsan Hyundai Horangi. "I'm happy to come back to the playing field, although we didn't have much time to recruit," said Kim. "But despite this, Ulsan has always been a strong side featuring in the top half of the table. I'm sure we'll be able to please our fans who have supported us through thick and thin."
Incheon United are also one of the three teams that underwent managerial changes during the winter, and their new boss Ilija Petkovic was understandably a bit more cautious than his rivals. "I know how tough the K-League is, but our goal is to finish in the top four. I don't want to be a coach who lets down our fans," said the Serbian. "Although it's difficult to promise that we will win the title, we will give our all in every match."
Honam rivals catching up
Former Asian champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are regarded as one of the true contenders to threaten the dominance of the ‘big three' after bolstering their squad with a number of big names including Lee Dong-Gook and Kim Sang-Sik. "We got off to a miserable start last season and barely made it to the play-offs, but we will not repeat the same mistake this year," promised coach Choi Kang-Hee. "Many good players have come in and young players have had enough experience. We want to begin our campaign brightly this year and challenge the top sides."
Although only a friendly Chunnam Dragons held Jeonbuk to a 1-1 draw in their first Honam derby last week, and the Dragons' mentor Park Hang-Seo suggests a more modest target than his counterpart. "Our goal is to reach the six-team play-offs. We would need about 42 points in order to do so, and I have prepared a sophisticated plan to achieve this."
Suwon Samsung Bluewings, FC Seoul, Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Hyundai will all feature in this season's edition of the AFC Champions League which commences next week. Despite the challenge of competing on both the domestic and continental stage, each will harbour genuine optimism they can repeat the success of Jeonbuk who claimed the Asian crown three years ago.