Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Three Tussling At The Top

Three Tussling At The Top.
With the Chuseok holidays in South Korea over, it is traditionally time for local fans to put down their overheated chopsticks and check out the race for the play-offs.

Past battles have been thrilling and this season is no different. As always, we teams that have long forgotten thoughts of merely finishing in the top six to book a place in the championship play-off series and have eyes on top spot.

FC Seoul currently occupy that position with 47 points, Jeonbuk has 45 and Pohang, which has five games remaining, one more than the others, has 41.

There are benefits in straddling the top of the standings. The teams that finished third to sixth in the table go to the play-offs but must battle it out with each other. The one that emerges from that four way tussle will take on second-place. The winners progress to the championship final decider against the team that finished first.

Seoul coach Senol Gunes, who led Turkey to third place at the 2002 World Cup, is in his third and probably last season in Korea. More than the K-League, the prize he really wants in the Asian Champions League – one that naturally receives more international acclaim and provides a place at FIFA’s Club World Cup held every December.

It didn’t happen as Seoul fell at the quarterfinal stage last week at the hands of Umm Salal of Qatar. Seoul lost 4-3 over two legs but couldn’t get the last and vital goal. The elimination caused Gunes to utter the line uttered by coaches around the world since cup competitions, both domestic and international, came into existence: “We can now concentrate on the league.”

The team did just that on Sunday and bounced back from the Asian heartbreak to win 2-0 at Jeju United to move two points clear at the top of the table above Jeonbuk.

Jeonbuk is the only team in the top three that has never been crowned champion of the K-League though the team from Jeonju did win the Asian title in 2006 The Motors are really shifting up through the gears, winning six of the last eight games, the only two defeats coming at the hands of rivals Seoul and Pohang.

Pohang Steelers are currently in third place but Pohang’s bid for the top spot could be derailed by their heroics in this season’s Asian Champions League. Last Wednesday was a night that will live long in the memories of all Steelers’ fans. After the first leg of the quarterfinal in Uzbekistan 3-1 the previous week, the Gyeongsang Province team had a mountain to climb in the Steelyard.

Roared on by thousands of fans, Pohang destroyed Bunyodkor, the richest club in Asia and coached by Luiz Felipe Scolari. The man who took Brazil to the 2002 World Cup title was helpless in the face of such intense football. It blew the Central Asians away.

That 4-1 second leg win gave Pohang a 5-4 aggregate victory and a place in the semi-final. There the Steelers waited to see if they would be joined by FC Seoul but was disappointed as the capital club couldn’t join their Gyeongsang cousins.

Pohang drew 2-2 with Incheon United on Sunday and are now six points off the pace set by Seoul, although they do have that game in hand. Still, with time running out and with a long trip to Qatar to come later this month, it may be tough. Pohang has a chance when they hosts Seoul on Wednesday. Failure to win that may mean the Steelers having to settle for third.

Pohang have been there before however and won the 2007 K-League despite ending the season in fifth place. That experience could prove useful.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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