Friday, August 31, 2007

Seongnam Stutter Then Slump As Suwon Soar

Seongnam striker Kim Dong-hyun in happier times

Things change quickly in football and the K-League is no exception. August 8 saw the first day of action after the mid-summer break. It also witnessed champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma defeat Jeju United 2-0 to stretch their unbeaten league run to 22 games.

On the same evening, closest challengers Suwon Samsung Bluewings crashed to a surprise home defeat at the hands of Asian Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to leave Seongnam a massive nine points clear at the top.

If it wasn’t for the fact that the top six teams qualify for the end-of-season championship play-offs, the season would have been written off there and then. The defending champions were far ahead of the others in terms of points, quality and form. Even with the injustice of having to negotiate a six-way play-off, few would have betted against Seongnam doing just that, just as they did last year.

Then it all started to go wrong. Suwon Samsung Bluewings were the ones who threw the spanner into the depths of the yellow winning machine. August 15 is Independence Day in the Land of the Morning Calm and in the evening, 30,000 Suwon fans went wild as they celebrated a 2-1 win over Seongnam at the ‘Big Bird’ Stadium.

Coach Kim Hak-beom wasn't overly concerned and gently reminded reporters that his team was still six points ahead and that Suwon was always a tough place to come. The wily Kim reminded reporters that Suwon that had been the last team to take three points from Seongnam the previous October and who, he asked, had triumphed when the two met in the championship final?

It wasn’t looking that simple. After a smooth season without injuries or problems, the fixture list was being a little unkind to the champions. The following game saw third-place Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I visit the Tancheon Stadium on a sticky Sunday evening. The Tigers snatched a win with five minutes remaining as Brazilian striker Leandro Machado suddenly unearthed shooting boots that had been buried for almost two years.

Not far away on the same night, over 40,000 fans saw Suwon defeat rivals FC Seoul 2-1 and suddenly the gap was down to four. It was a blip, they said just south of the capital, and no time to panic.

Bells started ringing however after another defeat, this time a 2-1 reverse at Pohang Steelers. At the same time, in the same south-eastern region of the country, Suwon defeated Daegu FC 1-0. From nine to one in the space of three games, Suwon was on a roll while the champs’ mid-season blip was taking on slump proportions.

It got worse. On Tuesday August 28, Suwon won their fifth consecutive game, a 1-0 turgid triumph at home to Chunnam Dragons courtesy of young striker Ha Tae-gyun, to go top of the table by a clear two points. 24 hours later, Seongnam lost again, a third defeat in four games.

A loss at home to Gyeongnam FC is no disgrace but it a surprise. Two points could be overturned this weekend when Seongnam take on Daejeon and in any event the team is already virtually guaranteed a top six play-off place. Worrying for Kim Hak-beom ahead of a quarter-final against Al Karama of Syria in the Asian Champions League next month, the start of a crucial phase of the season, Seongnam’s veneer of invincibility has well and truly gone - ripped off and trampled on by a stubborn Suwon side.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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