When Urko Vera’s towering header found the far corner in the eighty-eighth minute of their match against Gamba Osaka, it looked like Jeonbuk would be going to the semi-finals of the Asian Champions’ league. A goalless draw back in Jeonju meant that ever since Leonardo had given Jeonbuk the lead from the penalty spot early in the first half, a draw would have been good enough for Jeonbuk to progress. Gamba had equalized almost immediately and then taken the lead through a breathtaking strike from Shu Kurata before Vera scored his late goal to level the scores and put Jeonbuk ahead on away goals. Unfortunately for Jeonbuk, that goal wasn’t enough as with the final move of the game, Osaka split Jeonbuk’s defense right down the middle and, despite the desperate attempts of Jeonbuk’s defenders, Koki Yonekura managed to stay on his feet long enough to get into the box and lift the ball over Kwon Sun-Tae’s outstretched leg and into the net.
With Jeonbuk’s defeat in the quarter finals, all of Korea’s representative clubs had been knocked out of the competition. For the first time since 2008, there were no Korean clubs in the semi-final stage of the Asian Champions’ league. This may be just a blip, but it feels like the age of Korean dominance in Asian club football is coming to an end. This year’s ACL winners, Guangzhou Evergrande, picked up their second title in three years. The amount of money behind them makes it difficult for other clubs to compete. Other Chinese teams such as Shanghai SIPG, with stars like Dario Conca and Asamoah Gyan, are starting to close the gap on Guangzhou domestically, and it will only be a matter of time before they start to make a serious impact on the ACL themselves. The change in format in 2014 that keeps teams from West Asia and East Asia separate until the ACL final might help make the competition be more sustainable, but it also means that Korean teams will face these Chinese superpowers in the early knockout rounds of the competition.
This year however, it was Japan who were the scourge of Korean clubs in the Asian Champions’ League. Jeonbuk’s conquerors Gamba Osaka also knocked out FC Seoul, winning six-three over the two legs of the round of sixteen tie. Seoul lost that match in the first leg when they conceded two second half goals from Japanese international striker Takashi Usami and another from Yonekura. Yun Ju-Tae scored a late consolation goal but the damage had already been done and Seoul, with an almost impossible task in the away leg, lost six-three on aggregate despite another two goals from Yun. A poor home match was also the undoing of Suwon Bluewings, who lost three-two in the first leg against Kashiwa Reysol, despite a first minute strike from Yeom Ki-Hoon. Suwon won the second leg two-one but were knocked out of the competition on away goals. A last minute penalty from Kim Do-Heon gave Seongnam a two-one home win and a chance of causing an upset against Guangzhou Evergrande, but they lost two-nil in the south of China and were also knocked out in the round of sixteen.
The only positives from Korea’s 2015 ACL performance were that all four Korean clubs qualified from the group stages of the competition. With the competition getting tougher and tougher each year, Korean teams need to step up if they are to have a chance of winning the competition in the near future.
by Steve Price