The 2016 K-League season kicks-off with a bang, as defending champions Jeonbuk Motors take on last season’s FA Cup winners FC Seoul on the opening weekend of the campaign. This fixture attracted some of the biggest crowds of the 2015 season, and it is likely that Jeonju’s World Cup Stadium will be a sea of green come March 12. With both sides strengthening over the winter break, this match will give K-league fans a glimpse of whether FC Seoul has what it takes to overhaul Jeonbuk and reclaim the K-League Classic championship.
Given Jeonbuk’s superiority over the past two seasons, in which it has strolled to two K-League titles, one might have forgiven the Honam side for being a touch complacent. However, manager Choi Gang-Hee has clearly taken the phrase “build from a position of strength” to heart, as Jeonbuk has been one of the busiest sides in the transfer window, building a team that they believe can compete not only in Korea, but also against the best in Asia. This will be put to the test when Jeonbuk face big spending Jiangsu Suning, who brought in Brazilian stars Ramires and Alex Teixeira over the winter, in the Asian Champions’ League group stage. Although Jeonbuk’s spending has been nowhere near that of Jiangsu and the other moneyed clubs across the West Sea, they did make a relative splash when they managed to bring in former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-Kyung. Kim was heavily pursued by several English clubs last summer, only for his move to Blackburn Rovers to fall through due to work permit issues. Many expected Kim to be playing in Europe or Japan this season, but Jeonbuk swooped in and brought him back to the K-League. Judging by the way that he has been used in pre-season friendlies, it appears that Choi Gang-Hee is planning to make Kim Bo-Kyung the lynchpin of his new look Jeonbuk team.
Another big, in both senses of the word, signing for Jeonbuk was that of last season’s K-League top scorer Kim Shin-Wook. Despite all of his goals, the “Wookie” has struggled to break into the Korean national team and has still not earned his desired big-money move to Europe. The six foot six forward will be hoping to show national team coach Uli Stielike that there is more to his game than simply being a target man. Behind Kim Shin-Wook lies an array of attacking options, with Ricardo Lopes, Lee Jong-Ho, and Ko Moo-Yeol joining from Jeju United, Jeonnam Dragons, and Pohang Steelers respectively, adding to what was already quite possibly the strongest attacking midfield in the league.
FC Seoul essentially started last season without a strike force, and consequently struggled in the early stages, losing its opening three matches. The capital club seems to have learned their lesson, and have brought back fan favorite Dejan Damjanović from his two-season stint in China. The Montenegro international helped FC Seoul win the league during his last spell in the capital. He might be thirty-four years old, but his record of a goal every two games last season for Beijing Gouan shows that he still has what it takes to produce with the right supply. Damjanović joins Brazilian striker Adriano, who scored 18 times over the last campaign, and former Monaco star Park Chu-Young up-front in what must be the strongest forward line in the league. Even their fourth choice striker, Yun Ju-Tae, managed four goals in a single game against arch-enemies Suwon Bluewings last season. Expect to see some goals at Sangam this year.
The other big opening day match sees last season’s runners-up, Suwon Bluewings, take on local rivals Seongnam FC. Suwon’s young side is full of up-and-coming talents who may well be the stars of Korean football over the next few years. One of the biggest talents in their side is midfielder Kwon Chang-Hoon, who broke into the Korean national side last season, and at just 21 years of age, certainly has a big future ahead of him. Kwon was joined in the national team by Seongnam’s young striker Hwang Ui-Jo, who finally showed some consistency and hit 21 goals in all competitions for the Magpies last season.
Across the city from Suwon’s Big Bird Stadium lies the home ground of Suwon FC. Suwon’s other team won promotion to the top flight for the first time last season, and despite losing their star player Sisi to Polish side Lech Poznań, they will be hoping that their spell in the top tier of Korean football lasts for longer than one season. Fans will eagerly be anticipating May 14 when they take on their cross-town rivals as (relative) equals for the first time.
Although most of the foreign players in the K-League hail from Brazil, South-East Asians in the country have a player of their own to cheer on this season after Incheon United signed young Vietnamese talent Luong Xuân Truòng. The youthful midfielder has impressed Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger in the past, and many players from Vietnam and its neighbors will be hoping that he can be a success in South Korea and use Incheon as a springboard for bigger things.
With their quality additions, Jeonbuk is the heavy favorite to lift the 2016 K-League Classic Trophy, and will also be looking to challenge the hegemony of the Chinese clubs in the Asian Champions’ League. For FC Seoul, how quickly the club’s attacking options gel will decide whether or not they can start strongly and challenge for the title. Suwon Bluewings’s balanced young squad shouldn’t be underestimated either, while with ACL Champions’ League fixtures affecting last season’s top three, there is also a chance that a surprise contender may also challenge. Whatever happens between now and December, there’ll be plenty of fans across the country thrilled at the return to action.
The K-League’s opening round of fixtures takes place on March 12.
K-League official site: http://eng.kleague.com/eng/main.asp
Check out more from Steve Price at http://www.kleaguefootball.com/