On paper, the odds are stacked against the Lion City Sailors.
The Singapore side are making just their second foray into the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), and will stand across two-time ACL champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors at the South Korean outfit’s own Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
But the stoic Sailors are unfazed.
“Jeonbuk is undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in Asia, but we came here to compete and show what Singapore football can do. We believe we’re capable of playing good football, even against the best in the region,” said defender Zulqarnaen Suzliman, who started in the Sailors’ first two Group F ACL games.
Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković sang from the same hymn book.
“Jeonbuk is a big club with a lot of tradition in the AFC Champions League, with physically very strong players, local players who are playing at the highest level for South Korea and a very experienced coach as well. We’re here as a new club trying to represent the best of Singapore football,” said the 45-year-old.
“But we’re ready to come here and compete – my players are ready for this challenge and we’re not intimidated.”
A tough trek into Jeonju
Barely 12 hours after Saturday’s (21 October) 4-1 win over Tanjong Pagar United to put one foot into the Singapore Cup semi-finals, Ranko’s men hopped on a six-and-a-half hour flight to Incheon and then had to travel another four hours by bus before settling into Jeonju-si late on Sunday night.
Issues with training grounds on Monday saw the Sailors improvise, training on the artificial surface at Deokjin Sports Park, a public football facility owned by the Jeonju City Sports Council, and even had to clear the pitch due to prior bookings made by a local amateur group.
The Korean autumn has not helped.
Average temperatures hovers between 18°C and 7°C with the Sailors backroom staff hard at preparation before the trip to make sure the players are acclimatised. Thermal innerwear and winter jackets have been provided for each player, with this the first time most of the Sailors’ local footballers are playing under such conditions.
But Zulqarnaen (Mamat) is adamant the unfamiliar climate will not deter their drive to put on a good performance.
“After a few days here, we’re getting used to things. This weather is actually perfect for football – it’s not too cold and we don’t sweat as much compared to when we’re playing in Singapore,” he said.
“We’re just focused on what we want to achieve as a team. This is a big game – a tough test – for us and we’re going in with everything we’ve got to make our fans proud.”
To say that it is a tough test is no understatement.
Up against an Asian giant
Jeonbuk – semi-finalists at last season’s ACL – are Asian football royalty.
Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal have the most ACL titles winning the tournament four times. Pohang Steelers (South Korea) and Urawa Red Diamonds (Japan) have three each, while Jeonbuk have won Asia’s flagship club competition twice – in 2006 and 2016 – while finishing runners-up in 2011.
They are amongst the most successful teams in K League 1 and have been champions a total of nine times – including a string of five consecutive titles from 2017 to 2021.
Players who have suited up for them in the past includes the legendary Lee Dong-gook, current Bayern Munich star Kim Min-jae and forward Cho Gue-sung who featured at the 2022 FIFA World Cup for South Korea.
Jeonbuk’s current squad features much talent as well. Current South Korea internationals include the likes of Kim Jin-su, Moon Seon-min (pictured below) as well as Paik Seung-ho who scored a long-range screamer against Brazil at the Qatar World Cup.
But they have wobbled a little this season, seeing former coach Kim Sang-sik stepping down in May, and languishing in mid-table for portions of the 2023 K League 1 season.
A surprise 3-2 defeat to Thailand’s Bangkok United on the last ACL matchday meant the Thai side currently lead Group F with six points, with Jeonbuk level on three points with the Sailors.
Jeonbuk’s upturn in form
However, they have been on a mini-renaissance since then. Jeonbuk defeated FC Seoul 2-0 on the final day of the 33-round Regular K League 1 season, finishing within the top six to clinch a spot in Final A – where they will play another five matches within the group to determine their final position.
In their first match in Final A last week, they struck a last-gasp winner to down Daegu FC 2-1 to go into this game brimming with confidence.
Their bid for the three points against the Sailors are boosted by the return of five players who missed the first two matchdays due to their Asian Games participation with South Korea’s Under-23 side.
Paik captained the young Taegeuk Warriors to a 2-1 victory over Japan in the final, alongside the likes of goalkeeper Kim Jeong-hoon, defender Park Jin-seop, midfielder Song Min-kyu and forward Park Jae-yong.
Head Coach Dan Petrescu is adamant that they put on a strong display at home after failing to win all four (two draws and two losses) of their last home games in domestic football.
“Tomorrow is a really important game for Jeonbuk because of the loss in Thailand. I want to see a very good reaction from the players. While I want my team to be offensive, I want them to control the game and have balance,” said Petrescu.
“We’ve shown in our last two games that if we concentrate, other teams will find it hard to score against us,” added the Chelsea legend, who was appointed only on 9 June.
“But it won’t be an easy game, the Sailors have top national players who play for Singapore and some very good foreigners. So we definitely have to play good in defence to win the game.”