Thursday, July 10, 2008

Suwon Look Complete At Halfway Stage


As the K-League reaches the halfway stage, there is one team that looks like 100% champions, one that is setting the bar higher every week. It is a statistic that improves by the week but has become so familiar that it almost ceases to impress. Suwon Samsung Bluewings have won the last eleven league matches. It is a new record and at the moment, it is hard to see when it is going to end.

“The Blue winning machine’” it has been called by some writers who find that match reports when watching Suwon almost write themselves. March 16 was the last and only time in 2008 when the Bluewings didn’t taste victory - a 2-2 draw at perennial title rivals Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. Seongnam is still in second but lagging a massive nine points behind. FC Seoul is in third.

But at the moment, it is all about the boys from the Big Bird Stadium just to the south of Seoul. Suwon is unstoppable. The latest win was a 2-0 triumph at home to Incheon United. “It was a tough match for us,” said coach Cha Bum-keun. “With the injuries we have, some players were playing out of position and I am proud that they came through and we won.”

“This was a game in which we really needed Mato,” added the boss. Mato is Mato Neretjlak, currently the best central defender in the K-League and one of the best in Asia. If he was Korean then the final stage of qualification for the 2010 World Cup would look much easier but the 29 year-old is a former Croatian international and the man responsible for organizing the Suwon backline along with Korea’s 2002 and 2006 World Cup goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae.

‘We have a good team and are playing well,” Neretljak told me after the match. “I am enjoying my football here and it is a good place to play.”

Mato Neretljak clears the lines

Understandable sentiments. As well as a solid defence, there is an embarrassment of riches in midfield and attack. Lining up in the center are the likes of Cho Won-hee, Baek Ji-hoon and Lee Kwan-woo. Even North Korean midfield lynchpin An Yong-hak barely gets a game. It is in attack though where the team looks more dangerous than last season when it finished second. Seo Dong-hyun and Shin Young-rok are young strikers who have been terrorizing defenses up and down the Land of the Morning Calm. The two haven’t yet managed to break into the national team but with the lack of firepower at international level recently, it should only be a matter of time.

Usually, it would also only be a matter of time before the championship trophy was leaving Pohang and heading northwest to Suwon but in the present system, the top six teams will enter the championship play-off series. Finishing first gives an automatic place in the final but as Seongnam found out last year, it guarantees nothing.

With the league at the halfway stage, the top three seem to be pulling away from the chasing pack and if the trend continues then much attention will be on the teams fighting to fill positions four to six. Daejeon Citizen made a late and dramatic run to squeeze in at the last minute last season and there are a number of teams that could do the same in 2008.

Usual suspects Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I and Pohang Steelers won’t be far away and less regular play-off participants Incheon United, Daegu FC and Gyeongnam are all hovering around the cut-off point. All it needs it a purple patch to push them into the top six spot and a tilt at the title.

The contenders all know however that, like the ultimate boss in a computer combat game, Suwon will be waiting and ready to provide the toughest of tests.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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