(Korea Professional Football League)
There's no time to mess around.
The K League 1, South Korea's top pro football competition, will kick off its abbreviated 2020 season on Friday, with the three-time defending champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors hosting the reigning FA Cup holders Suwon Samsung Bluewings. The match will begin at 7 p.m. at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, 240 kilometers south of Seoul.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the new season by more than two months. It was initially set to begin on Feb. 29 but the decision to push it back was reached five days prior to the scheduled start.
With so many days lost, the league has shortened the season from the usual 38 matches to 27 matches.
Though the number of COVID-19 cases has fallen dramatically over the past month or so, there are some lingering concerns, and it is with some measure of cautious optimism that the league is opening the new season. Should a player or a coach be diagnosed with the coronavirus during the season, that club will be kept off the field for at least two weeks.
And if the league is forced to scrap its season because of infections but at least 22 matches are in the books for each team, then the championship could be awarded right there and then.
That possibility will put pressure on the league's 12 clubs to get on track quickly at the start of the season. They simply can't afford to take their sweet time trying to put it together. Otherwise, teams will fall behind the pack before they realize what hit them.
And if Jeonbuk were to make history by winning their fourth straight title and eighth overall -- both of which would be new records -- then they have to put the pedal to the metal from the get-go.
Jeonbuk and Suwon were two of the lucky K League outfits that have each played a couple of competitive matches before the virus grounded football in Asia to a halt. Those matches came during the group stage of the since-halted Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in February and March.
Neither team impressed, as Jeonbuk had a draw and a loss and Suwon dropped both of their matches.
Both have since had plenty of time to regroup and get ready for the start of the domestic competition. Jeonbuk have history on their side. In the past six years, Jeonbuk have lost only three of 22 league meetings against Suwon. The last Suwon victory in that stretch came in the season finale of 2017.
Jeonbuk will try to maintain their upper hand by turning to some new faces.
The 2019 K League 1 MVP Kim Bo-kyung left Ulsan Hyundai FC to join Jeonbuk for his second tour of duty. The playmaking midfielder will be feeding passes to the recently-signed striker Cho Gue sung, who was one of the top scorers in the second-tier K League 2 last year. Cho scored his first Jeonbuk goal during the AFC Champions League.
More new faces, Lars Veldwijk and Murilo, will also be keys to coach Jose Morais' attacking schemes. On the other hand, another new midfielder, Takahiro Kunimoto, hasn't played in Jeonbuk's past two practice matches, which casts doubt on his availability for Friday.
Lee Dong-gook, Jeonbuk's ageless wonder at 41, will begin his 23rd professional season. The K League's career leading scorer with 224 goals will look to keep adding to that total and put some serious distance between himself and the rest of the league.
For Suwon, incumbents will have to deliver. Adam Taggart, the reigning scoring champion, will be joined on the attack by Han Eui-gwon and Kim Min-woo. Captain Yeom Ki-hun missed the last two practice matches, though the 37-year-old could have been held out for some rest before the season.
Canadian centerback Doneil Henry, signed from Vancouver Whitecaps during the winter, could make his K League debut for Suwon in this one.
The opening showdown will be streamed live on the K League's YouTube channel (youtube.com/withkleague) and at its official Twitter account, @kleague.
Simon Hill, a veteran football commentator who has called the FIFA World Cup, English Premier League and Australia's A-League, will provide English play-by-play from Australia. The international feed, to be produced at the K League Media Center in Seoul, will feature English-language graphics. (Yonhap)