Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Barely Noticed Failure For Korea In 'Other' Champions League

AFC Champions League.
South Korean football fans have been following the progress of Manchester United and Park Ji-sung to the UEFA Champions League final with great interest. On May 21, the English champions will meet Chelsea in Moscow in the biggest club match on the planet and if Park features, and as he played every minute of the quarter and semifinals there is no reason to suggest he won’t, he will become the first Asian to play in Europe’s showpiece.

Excitement is growing with dozens of daily articles but in the Asian Champions league, Korean interest will not last all the way to the final game. It has ended with the first round barely half over.

The League’s two representatives in the competition Chunnam Dragons and Pohang Steelers are all but out of the running even though two of the six first round matches remain. It is a sorry and unusual state of affairs for Korea, the country that enjoys easily the best record in the competition with seven titles since it started back in 1967.

Chunnam’s exit may not yet be officially confirmed but it is only a matter of time. Group leaders Gamba Osaka will have to lose both its remaining games and Chunnam will have to do the opposite. Even that may not be enough.

The Dragons’ demise is no surprise. The club finished tenth last season in the league, only qualifying for the competition by winning the FA Cup. Injuries to its best players made a tough task even more daunting. A loss in the opening game at Melbourne Victory was a poor start but Chunnam looked like bouncing back in game two against group favorites Gamba. The Gwangyang team took a two-goal lead. The defence then fell to pieces and the visitors fought back to win 4-3 and take three points back to Kansai.

No points from the first two games usually spell disaster in a first round where only the top team from each group survives. A last-minute home win against Thailand’s Chonburi FC in game three gave a little hope and that glimmer intensified in the return match in Bangkok but once again, Chunnam let a two-goal lead slip and drew 2-2.

Pohang’s failure has been more disappointing. Unlike Chunnam, the stronger Steelers were expected in Korea to make it out of a group containing Australia’s Adelaide United, Changchun Yatai of China and Vietnam's Binh Duong. Those expectations lasted exactly three minutes as Adelaide took the lead in the Steelyard and won the first game 2-0.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom as Pohang had enough chances and possession for a much better result. A victory in Vietnam on matchday two was followed by a tricky trip to northeast China. Pohang dominated but was unable to take its chances and lost 1-0 to Changchun. The same happened in the return match two weeks ago. Pohang controlled the game from start to finish but could only manage a 2-2 draw. “I have never seen a team be so much on top but then fall behind,” Pohang’s Brazilian boss Sergio Farias said at the time. “We will do our best in the remaining games we have.”

That is the way it should be but it will be barely noticed. Even without the distraction of Park Ji-sung, Korean fans and media are not big followers of the Asian Champions League. In the early stages, only the hardcore turn out for games against teams made up of players unknown in the Land of the Morning Calm. Scenes such as an almost completely empty stadium when Chunnam hosted Chonburi – albeit in bad weather – are unfortunate as the tournament has potential

So if Chunnam manage to defeat Melbourne Victory in Gwangyang tonight and Pohang gain some revenge over Adelaide in South Australia, you will be able to read about it, but you may have to look hard to find stories of what in Korea is very much the other champions league.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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