Monday, March 9, 2009

Korean Clubs Ready For Asian Assault

Korean Clubs Ready For Asian Assault.
It is a fact, and perhaps not an ideal one, that as soon as the K-League starts its new season, the Asian Champions League also gets into gear. Clubs that don’t hit the ground running can often find that before they know what is happening, they are hotfooting it out of Asia’s premier club competition.

This year may be a little easier as the 2009 tournament has been revised, reformatted and relaunched. There are more clubs involved and considerably more money on offer for the winners.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has raised the bar in terms of criteria. Only the Asian leagues at the top end of the professional spectrum have gained entrance. The AFC ranked and evaluated all Asia’s competitions and South Korea’s K-league came in second behind Japan.

As a result, instead of the two clubs that each nation used to send forth to do battle, Japan, Korea, China, UAE, Iran and Saudi Arabia have four representatives each. Also, instead of the winner from each group progressing to the quarterfinal stage, the top two will go to the round of 16 as they bid to win the title, $1.5 million and entrance to FIFA’s Club World Cup in December.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings, FC Seoul, Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I and Pohang Steelers are Korea’s hopefuls and all four will lock horns with teams from old rivals Japan and China.

Seoul has its work cut out. Their opening match is at the Indonesian home of minnows Sriwijaya but then come ties against defending Asian Champions Gamba Osaka and Chinese champions Shandong Luneng.

"We have the best team, best players and the best fans and we want to get the results that reflect that,” said Seoul coach Senol Gunes who will be delighted with an opening day 6-1 win at Chunnam Dragons. "We want to win the K-league as well as the Asian Champions League. We are still doing our research on the other teams but I think every team is strong. But Gamba are the strongest.”

Gamba will bring some familiar Korean faces to Seoul next week in the shape of new signings Cho Jae-jin (a player much more highly-rated in Japan than Korea so therefore sure to score in the capital) and Park Dong-hyuk. Shandong Luneng is no stranger to the Land of the Morning Calm either after losing in the first round to Seongnam Ilhwa in 2007.

Shandong lost to K-league champions Suwon in the recent Pan-Pacific Championship in California and Suwon went on to win that tournament. The Bluewings kick off at home on Wednesday to Japanese title-holders Kashima Antlers. The six-time J-League winners lost at the quarter-final stage last season and is looking to go two (or is it three?) better. Brazilian striker Marquinhos was Japan’s top scorer last season. Big-spending Shanghai Shenhua is the other main rival in the group while Singapore’s Armed Forces may sound tough but will likely be whipping boys.Maybe not though if Suwon play the same way as they did when losing 3-2 at home to Pohang last week.

Pohang Steelers struggled in the Asian Champions League last season and face a long trek to Australia to face a team unknown in Korea - Central Coast Mariners. The club is located just north of Sydney and promise to give Pohang a stiff opening night test - though the Steelers were impressive in their opening day 3-2 win at Suwon. Later come matches against high-scoring Kawasaki Frontale of Japan and China’s high-spending Tianjin Teda.

Last but not quite least is Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i. The Tigers reached the semi-finals of the 2006 edition. The 2009 version won’t be easy – not least because the team has lost some good players. Lee Sang-ho is at Suwon and Park Dong-hyuk left for Gamba. Ulsan could have done worse with the group however.

Australia’s representatives Newcastle Jets won the 2008 A-league title but that was a year ago. Since, the team’s best players have left leaving the Jets a pale imitation of their former selves. Nagoya Grampus is a solid rather than spectacular Japanese outfit – though it is led by former Yugoslav legend Dragan Stojkovic. The game of most interest is the one with Beijing Guoan.

Beijing’s coach is none other than Lee Jang-soo. The Korean preceded Senol Gunes at FC Seoul and is now looking forward to returning to his homeland to wreak some havoc.

"As a coach from Korea, I really want to defeat Ulsan in my homeland,” Lee told Chinese media. “It will show my ability.”

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com



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