Usually as the year comes to an end, the Asian Champions League does too — but now the tournament has transitioned to a summer-to-spring schedule, meaning that the group stage has just finished. And it was a good one for South Korea’s clubs with three of the four teams progressing into the Round of 16 that will start in February. Jeonbuk Motors, Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Horang-i have seven continental titles between them and are still in the running. Only Incheon United, making a first-ever appearance in the 40-team tournament, failed to get out of its group and it was a heartbreaking exit. Incheon collected 12 points, the same as Yokohama F. Marinos and Shandong Taishan, but it was the Japanese and Chinese teams that finished in the top two spots and advanced to the knockout stages. That is because they had a slightly superior goal difference to Incheon in their head-to-head games. It was the narrowest of exits though United, a team that has historically spent more time nearer the bottom of the K League standings than the top though that has started to change in recent seasons, can be proud of its performance in Asia.
Jeonbuk, winner in 2006 and 2016, struggled at times, reflective of a domestic season that was disappointing. In the end, the team from Jeonju made it through, finishing second behind Bangkok United, though suffered defeats at the hands of Bangkok as well as Lion City Sailors of Singapore. “The players have worked tirelessly and we deserve to qualify for the next round,” said Jeonbuk coach Dan Petrescu. “I’m happy for the fans and for the players. However, we need to play much better in the Round of 16.”The Romanian is correct. If Jeonbuk does not impove in the next stage then the team will not last much longer. Pohang Steelers finished second in the K League and of all the Korean teams had the most comfortable time in Asia, guaranteeing a top spot with games to spare above defending champion Urawa Reds of Japan. Only Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia has won more continental titles, four, than the Steelers and if Pohang can continue then a fourth crown is not out of the question.
With the domestic season ending, Pohang has a new coach with Kim Gi-dong joining FC Seoul after four and a half years with the club. His replacement is Park Tae-ha, a former player. “The city of Pohang means so much to me. Ever since I first joined the team, this place has always been on my mind,” Park said. “It’s an honor to be head coach of this club. “Ulsan, champion in 2012 and 2020, finished second behind Kawasaki Frontale of Japan. Last week, the club rebranded as Ulsan HD to reflect the name of its Hyundai corporate owner. While the name “Horang-i” is no more, the team will still be known as the Tigers and will still be a candidate to lift a third Asian title when the competition resumes in February. With three horses left in the race, a Korean club has 스포츠토토존 a chance of going all the way.