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2023 Preview: Can Jeju United Finally Make It Back Into AFC Champions League?

Jeju United have recorded top-six finishes in each of the last two seasons since promotion back to the top division. But with big backing from SK Energy, Nam Ki-il will be looking to keep his foot on the gas and steer the islanders back into the AFC Champions League in the 2023 Hana 1Q K League 1. 

What happened last season?

Jeju United ended the 2022 campaign in fifth place, falling short of the target of AFC Champions League football. The islanders came close, though, finishing two points behind fourth-placed Incheon United and even won more games than Incheon (14-13) but 14 defeats were the second-most in the top six. 

Jeju struggled to find consistency throughout the whole campaign, though. Their longest unbeaten run was six in the earlier part of the campaign, winning three and drawing three from Round 2 through to Round 6 but not once did Jeju put together a run of more than two wins on the bounce and said runs were three months apart. From June, the islanders lost 11 from 24 and won just eight matches.


What transfer business has been done over winter?

Jeju United's transfer business has largely been about replacing the big names that have left. Joo Min-kyu's departure to Ulsan Hyundai has meant that the club have had to bring in a new number nine. Brazilian Yuri Jonathan has joined from Portuguese side CF Estrela. The 24-year-old spent the 2022 season on loan at Guarani in Brazil's Serie B where he scored seven and assisted two in 17 appearances. 

To replace Gerso Fernandes, Nam Ki-il has plumped for Gwangju FC ace Reis who has shown glimpses of what he can do at K League 1 level. The 30-year-old helped fire Gwangju FC to the K League 2 title last season after relegation the season before, scoring 12 and providing four assists in 39 appearances. In 2021, he managed four goals and five assists from 30 overall appearances for Gwangju.

Jeju have also brought in a couple of Korean wingers in Kim Seung-seop from Daejeon Hana Citizen, who appears to be moved to wingback, and Lee Ki-hyeok from Suwon FC while two goalkeepers arrive, Kim Hyeong-geun from Seoul E-Land who is likely to be Kim Dong-jun's understudy and Kim Keun-bae from Gimpo FC who spent the latter half of last season on loan at Jeju. Another notable departure is Yoon Bit-garam but the 2020 ACL MVP managed just 15 appearances for Jeju last term.

Existing squad and key players

Jeju's squad has a fair bit of depth already. The skeleton of the team merely needed fleshing out with Kim Dong-jun, Jeong Woon, Kim Oh-gyu, Ahn Hyun-beom, and Choi Young-jun key in that defensive third of the pitch. Central midfielder Lee Chang-min is still with the club for now at least but is expected to leave for military service in the summer. Fans will be expecting more from Koo Ja-cheol, though, who managed just nine appearances, one goal, and one assist last term. 

The supporters will be hoping there's more to come from Jonathan Ring as well as the Swede, a right winger by trade, managed five goals and two assists in 28 appearances overall.

In terms of their existing firepower, Kim Ju-gong and Seo Jin-su who scored five and four goals last year respectively. Seo had only returned towards the end of the campaign and found himself in a real purple patch of form with his four goals coming in just eight appearances.

Style of play, strengths and weaknesses

Nam Ki-il likes his wingers in a 3-4-3 to come in centrally. Gerso Fernandes was among the top five for touches in the box and that's him being deployed as a left winger. Reis' willingness to cut in and shoot will fit into that style of play while Kim Seung-seop was no stranger to the 18-yard box when in a Daejeon shirt and sometimes played as a second striker in a two. Jeju like to keep hold of the ball and ranked fourth in K League 1 for possession (53.3%) and fourth for passes.

For a Nam Ki-il side, Jeju United conceded too many goals. Nam, known to be a bit defensive in his approach, will have been less than pleased with the 50 goals conceded last term - the second-most in the top six. 

Realistic 2023 target

Qualification to the AFC Champions League will be a realistic aim for Jeju United. You would be forgiven for thinking that Jeju have qualified for the competition more than the three times they have, given the size of the club and the resources and SK Energy backing.

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