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8:00 PM UTC
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4
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Leg 2Aggregate: 2 - 3
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 By John Duerden

Premier League flop Lee Dong-Gook, 38, dreams of 2018 World Cup

Jason Dasey and PJ Roberts evaluate Malaysia's upcoming fixture versus North Korea which will be played on neutral soil.

From Premier League flop to South Korean record-breaker, the career of Lee Dong-Gook has reached such lows and highs that it deserves its own ride at the Everland theme park, just south of Seoul.

A legend in Asia and freshly crowned 2017 K-League champion, the man known as the Lion King due to an early hairstyle, never rebuilt his reputation in England after a disappointing spell in the top flight with Middlesbrough.

He arrived on Teesside in Jan. 2007 and told local media that he wanted to "have the same sort of affection from English fans that I had in Korea."

His wish did not come true before he left 16 months later, without a single league goal to his name.

His debut in February against Reading was almost perfect, but hitting the post from close range just minutes after coming on the pitch set the tone for his entire spell. Had that gone in, who knows what would have happened? It could have led to Lee showing what he was capable of, and opened the door for more East Asian strikers to head west.

Lee Dong-Gook vs. Everton in 2007
Lee Dong-Gook failed to score a league goal across two seasons with Middlesbrough in 2007 and 2008.

It was never going to be easy to move ahead of Mark Viduka and Yakubu Aiyegbeni in the Riverside pecking order. Lee, who quickly observed that the grass in England was different and that he needed to head to the gym to bulk up to compete with bigger and stronger Premier League defenders, never managed to do so.

As forgettable as his time in England was, Lee is a genuine legend in Asia.

On Sunday, this father-of-five scored goal number 200 in the K-League. The stats are impressive. In 467 games, the striker has reached his double century with 1405 attempts on goal. The next highest is the mighty Montenegrin marksman Dejan Damjanovic on 172.

The all-important goal came against Jeju United on Sunday. It was the third in Jeonbuk's 3-0 win over their closest challengers.The victory sealed a fifth title win for the Motors who have become the dominant force in Korean football in the past decade, and won the 2016 AFC Champions League (ACL).

Lee netted 64 times before arriving at the club in 2009. After arriving back in Korea after the failed spell at Middlesbrough, he had a short spell with the all-conquering Seongnam in 2009, but that didn't really work out. At the time, his career obituaries were being written.

Lee Dong-Gook in 2016 AFC Champions League for Jeonbuk
Lee Dong-Gook rebuilt his career when he linked up with coach Choi Kang-Hee at Jeonbuk in 2010.

Part of that was down to serious injury picked up in 2006, and the lack of evidence that he had returned to his past heights.

Lee was in the form of his life in the middle of the last decade. He established himself as the country's main striker during qualification for the 2006 World Cup after being surprisingly left out of the 2002 squad by Guus Hiddink. That was tough to take in a country that went wild that summer, and a national team who won plenty of plaudits.

He tore his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) just two months before Germany 2006, playing for Pohang Steelers. His next competitive kick of the ball came for Middlesbrough almost a year later. If he had not have been coming back from such an injury then, perhaps, the transition to England would have been easier. From 2006 to 2009, Lee barely played.

The move to Jeonbuk to link up with Choi Kang-Hee, a coach who really believed in him, changed everything. The two enjoyed their adventures in the ACL. Lee had never appeared in the competition before 2010. He took to it as tourists to the city of Jeonju, where the Motors play, take to its famous dish of bibimbap.

Lee has not only provided more goals than anyone else in Korea, he has done the same in Asia. Within seven seasons, he has scored 32 times in the ACL.

Even at the age of 38, with time and injuries taking their toll, coaches still summon the Lion King when they need a goal.

Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-Yeung
South Korea were unimpressive as they qualified for the 2018 World Cup after finishing second in Group A.

Lee, who made a brief World Cup debut back in 1998, was even picked for two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers in August and September. These were games that the Koreans needed to get something out of to book a place in Russia.

The fact that Lee entered proceedings in the second half against Uzbekistan was not a surprise. However, the fact that he missed a gilt-edged header in the dying moments -- it would have secured a World Cup appearance with some comfort to spare -- did raise eyebrows.

That was just another piece of the rich tapestry that makes up Lee's career. He has scored more goals in Asia's oldest professional league, and showpiece continental event, than anyone else, while failing in the world's most popular league to an extent that was almost spectacular.

He may retire next season, or he may end up going to the 2018 World Cup. If he does, then don't bet against a goal or two. Lee Dong-Gook doesn't do things by halves.

John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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