Korean teams start year with AFC play

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Korean teams start year with AFC play

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, the continent’s premier club tournament, kicks off Tuesday with four Korean teams in the battle for regional bragging rights.

Jeju United of the first-division K-League, starts things off for Korean teams tomorrow when it hosts Tianjin Teda of China in Group E action. In Group F, FC Seoul travels to the United Arab Emirates to take on Al Ain.

Then on Wednesday, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will meet China’s Shendong Luneng in Group G play and the Suwon Samsung Bluewings will be the last K-League team to start, facing Australia’s Sydney FC on the road in Group H.

Korea has been the most successful country at the annual AFC tourney, with nine total titles by K-League representatives. And Korean coaches in 2011 are keen on winning both the K-League and AFC titles.

“I’ve worked to build a squad deep enough to handle both competitions,” said Yoon Sung-hyo, head coach of Suwon. “We’ve got a young team, and players have worked hard to build stamina for a long season.”

The Bluewings acquired national team goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong and former national team forward Choi Sung-guk in the offseason, bolstering an already-solid lineup.

There are eight groups of four teams in the opening stage, and teams face each other twice in a home-and-away format. The top two clubs from each group will make the round of 16.

But the Champions League places an extra burden on competing clubs - it starts this month, but ends well into the fall.

Teams play only two group matches per month as the AFC tries to accommodate their playing schedules in their respective domestic leagues. But with K-League regular season matches every weekend and auxiliary K-League Cup and FA Cup games on weekdays, teams can get stretched thin. Doing well in both the K-League and Champions League is not easy. Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma is the only K-League team to have won both, doing so in 1995 at the tail end of its dominant run.

“Away matches in the Champions League aren’t easy in terms of stamina and physical conditioning,” Yoon said. “But we have to overcome these problems if we want to be No. 1 in Asia.”

Lifting the continental trophy is considered more prestigious to some than winning the domestic league - to an extent that certain teams, such as the 2010 Seongnam squad, make no secret their intent to concentrate on winning the AFC over the K-League.

But K-League teams know the importance of doing well at home. Thanks to some quirks in the rules, a champion at the AFC tournament isn’t always guaranteed a chance to defend its title. They also have to perform in domestic leagues: only the top three clubs in league plus the FA Cup winner qualify for the AFC Champions League.

“Both the K-League and AFC Champions League are very competitive, and I feel they’re both important and we should really go after [both].” said Park Kyung-hoon, head coach of Jeju United, which finished second in the K-League last year.

Hwangbo Kwan, the new head coach of FC Seoul, feels the same way. The AFC event hasn’t been too kind to the four-time K-League winner. FC Seoul was a runner-up in 2001, but passed the group stage only one other time, reaching the quarters in 2009.

“FC Seoul is the best team in Korea, but we have not won the Champions League yet,” Hwangbo said. “We are not heavily concentrating on any particular competition, but we will try to win both.” Yonhap

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