Thursday, October 18, 2007

26 Games, Six Teams Standing

Daejeon boss Kim Ho
The system has its critics but the play-offs gave the K-League regular season a final day to remember. Six teams out of 14 doing battle in the championship deciders may be a high percentage but without the games, we would have just been treated to the sight of Seongnam strolling to another title.

It is partly Seongnam’s fault that the system was reinstalled. After a 2003 season in which the Gyeonggi Province club won the league by 18 points, 2004 saw the rebirth of the play-offs. The following three seasons saw four teams fight it out but the K-League extended that to six at the start of 2007.

Seongnam finished first again and while there was no trophy, they did receive a consolation prize – the club will only face one opponent in a two-legged clash in November. Suwon Samsung Bluewings finished four points behind in second and are guaranteed a one-leg semi-final at home on October 31. Suwon’s opponent for that game will be the team that emerges from the battle between those who finished third to sixth.

Going into the final day of the regular season, two of those spots had been claimed already. Gyeongnam FC and Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I were guaranteed to finished third and fourth. Only two spots were up for grabs –fifth and sixth.

Of the five teams still in with a chance, FC Seoul were the best placed –in fifth to be exact, three points clear of seventh and in need of just a point at lowly Daegu FC. Such a result looked to be well within Seoul’s reach as Senol Gunes's men had drawn 13 of the preceding 25 games.

Pohang Steelers occupied sixth and knew that a win at home against fellow play-off chasers Incheon United would be enough. Incheon were in the same boat as Daejeon Citizen and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors; clubs that needed to win and other results to go their way.

A defeat for Seoul was necessary and that is what happened. Brazilian striker Luisinho fired home the only goal of the game after 34 minutes at Daegu World Cup Stadium.

Pohang got their three points with a 3-2 win to claim their play-off place in a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreline suggests. That result ended Incheon’s dreams and Jeonbuk’s season. The Asian Champions struggled to a 2-1 win at home to bottom club Gwangju Sangmu. It was Jeonbuk’s first victory in nine games but it was too little too late.

That left Daejeon Citizen. The 2001 FA Cup winners hadn’t looked like play-off candidates at the end of the first half of the season, collecting 13 points from the first 13 games. During the summer, coach Choi Yoon-kyum hit his assistant over the head with a beer glass during a drinking session. Such an act is not an automatic firing offence in Korea and for a while, Choi looked like staying on, backed by fans as well as his stitched-up sidekick. The number two soon changed his mind and Choi changed jobs,

Kim Ho stepped in. The 1994 World Cup and former Suwon coach is more of a soju man and also changed a few other traditions in Daejeon. In the first half of the season, the Citizen had drawn seven out of 13 games but Kim’s revolutionary concept that a win is three times better than a draw caught on. From August, Daejeon lost five games ( more than it lost in the first stage) but won the other eight to collect 24 points..

It was a close-run thing however. Despite Daejeon’s improved form, only a late run of four consecutive wins had put them in with a chance on the final day and with a good record at home against Suwon, the home fans were confident.

They were ecstatic when Brazilian striker Shuba scored the only goal of the game in the second half. Daejeon should have scored more but the finish wasn’t too tense. Suwon’s slim hopes of catching Seongnam meant that as the game drew to a close, the Bluewings weren’t too concerned about scoring a goal that would have shot rivals Seoul into the playoffs.

Daejeon’s response at the end was an emotional one but the team have little time to celebrate. They have a game at Ulsan on Sunday, the day after Gyeongnam host Pohang. The two winners will play-off against each other a week later for the right to face Suwon.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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