Friday, July 24, 2009

All To Play For As K-League Reaches Halfway Point

All To Play For As K-League Reaches Halfway Point.
As the rainy season, hopefully, comes to an end, the football season in South Korea is just past the halfway stage. It has been a very interesting and unusual campaign so far with some big fish struggling down in the murky waters while minnows play around in unfamiliar waters near the surface.

Usually, there is no smaller catch in the K-League than Gwangju Sangmu. The military club spends every season at the bottom. That is not a huge surprise considering that they are restricted to players on their two-year tour of duty and are not able to go out and sign exotic foreign stars, something that many clubs in the league are doing right now.

The addition of strikers Choi Sung-kuk has helped. The ‘Little Maradona’ has revitalized the team, adding invention, creation and, at the risk of going overboard, even a touch of magic from time to time. He has bagged seven goals, the same as strike partner Kim Myung-joong, a big man to compliment Choi.

Gwangju’s problem is a small squad that will struggle if injuries and suspensions take their toll. That hasn’t really happened yet but is always a worry. Recent results have taken a downturn with three straight defeats but the team is still in third-place and on course for a place in the end of season championship play-offs.

The biggest fish this season and top of the standings is FC Seoul. The 2008 runner-up is accustomed to life at the top. Everything is going smoothly in 2009; the team is playing well, scoring goals and looking forward to the quarterfinal of the Asian Champions League against Umm Salal of Qatar.

As you would expect in the rainy season, there are clouds on the horizon. One problem of gathering young talent is that European clubs are quick to notice young and talented players from East Asia. The prospect of a player that can improve a team on the field and contribute commercially off it is one that excites chief executives from Madrid to Manchester to Milan and to Moscow.

English Premier League club Bolton Wanderers is about to pay $3.5 million for Lee Chung-yong. That amount would be the highest ever paid by a foreign club to one in the K-League. Lee left for a medical test on Monday and said goodbye to the team on Sunday by scoring one and creating another as Seoul won 3-1 at Gangwon FC to stay top.

"I thought long and hard about it since Bolton made an offer,” said Lee. “I had many things to consider about leaving Seoul as the team has lots of important games to come. I am looking forward to the challenge.”

It may not stop with that young star. Midfielder Ki Sung-yong, Lee’s fellow South Korea international, is also in the sights of European giants. The 20 year-old has been on the radar of past European champions such as Porto and Hamburg. Now Sports Seoul newspaper is linking the youngster to a move to another ex-European giant, PSV Eindhoven. The Dutch league is seen as an ideal introduction to Europe and the club is also the former home of a certain Korean duo – Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo.

Unlike Lee Chung-yong, who ultimately would like to play in Spain, Ki wants to go to England. He has the talent and a move could be made sooner rather than later.

Lee Dong-guk has been there and done that, though the Lion King’s time with Middlesbrough was far from successful. He returned home in 2008 and is now scoring goal after goal for Jeonbuk Motors. The total has now reached 14 goals in 14 games as the Jeonju team challenges for a first ever title.

Incheon United is in fourth but don’t quite have the look of champions as a 4-1 loss at home to Pohang Steelers and then last week’s 5-1 thrashing at FC Seoul demonstrated. Pohang is the league’s form team with five straight wins and only a slow start to the season means that it is down in fourth.

The south-easterners demonstrated in 2007 that they can come from nowhere to win the title.

There is still a lot of soccer to be played. Lee Chung-yong is going to miss a very interesting second half of the season.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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