Monday, November 10, 2008

And Then There Were Six

Suwon celebrate

The regular season of the K-League has come to an end; now six teams are standing and dusting themselves down in preparation for the championship play-off series.

Despite a mid-season dip that threatened to go the way of Seoul’s KOSPI index and head into a plunge, Suwon Samsung Bluewings bounced back to finish in first – just. The Gyeonggi giants took top spot ahead of FC Seoul by virtue of a slightly superior goal difference.

The reward for laying claim to the top spots is that the lucky recipients get to watch the other quartet quarrel until one is left.

The smart money is that Seongnam will emerge from the dust but anything could happen. The yellows finished in third and host barely-squeezed-into-sixth Jeonbuk. The match-up between fourth and fifth is an all-southeastern affair between Ulsan and Pohang.

Winning the first match is just one step. The prize for the two victors is a battle with each other. The winner of that game will head to capital for a one-off match with FC Seoul. The winner of that takes on Suwon in a two-legged final with the K-League title as a prize.

It is simpler than it sounds but the process getting to this point was not easy. Going into the final round of games on Sunday, there were a host of issues that had to be settled.

Suwon traveled to Incheon. Both teams needed to win –Suwon to ensure first place and Incheon to stay in sixth.

Thousands of Suwon fans also made the short journey west and were rewarded as their heroes took control of the game by scoring three very good goals. The first a real beauty courtesy of Baek Ji-hoon.

Baek Ji-hoon celebrates

Incheon pulled one back with a late penalty but the eventual result was never in doubt. The Suwon players celebrated first place with their fans while Incheon’s supporters quietly left their stadium for the last time this year.

“We started this season so well but had injuries and then had a bad run,” smiled Suwon coach Cha Bum-keun after the match. “As a coach, this is the most difficult time but it was good experience for the other players.

“I think that the team which finishes first is the real champion,” he added.

Suwon had to win as Seoul was waiting to pounce and take top spot if there were any slip-ups. The capital club slipped up itself and lost the initiative in the race for the summit last weekend with a 2-0 defeat at Busan.

On the subsequent trip to the southeast, Seoul performed better and was two goals ahead by half-time. Pohang hit back in the dying minutes but it was too little too late. Despite finishing second, Seoul coach Senol Gunes proclaimed that he was happy with the season.

“All our players have given everything over the last 26 games. First of all we will give them a vacation and then continue the hard work. We will not make too many changes,” Gunes said.

Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma spent virtually the whole season in the top two until the final week. The team simply stopped scoring though managed a 1-0 win at Daegu FC. Even that was slightly disappointing as Daegu may be a city famous for juicy apples and dainty dames but the team is notorious for its leaky backline. The seven-time champion will host Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the play-off.

Of all the six teams remaining, Jeonbuk is the happiest to be there. The Jeonju team started the season poorly and spent much of the first half scrambling to stay to climb off the bottom. A great run in the second half of the campaign, culminating in an exciting 3-1 win over Gyeongnam, ensures that the 2008 season is not over in Jeolla Province

With Pohang and Ulsan also ready to continue, there is still a great deal of football still left to be played.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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