With the benefit of hindsight it was written in the stars that FC Seoul’s season would end last Saturday after losing to Chunnam Dragons in the first round of the K-league’s championship play-offs.
Seoul thought they shouldn’t have needed to play the match at all. The capital club spent the whole season slugging it out with Jeonbuk Motors at the top of the K-League and expected to go straight to the final, or at least, the semi-final.
That all changed on the last day of the season as Seoul conceded a last-minute goal at home to Chunnam Dragons. That 1-1 tie saw Seoul slip into third. That finish meant Seoul had to negotiate the entire play-off series.
As luck would have it, the first play-off opponent was Chunnam. And Chunnam was the last. For Seoul, it is very much a case of what might have been. For much of the season, the red-and-blacks looked the likeliest champion but when the push came to the shove, the team didn’t quite have the indefinable quality that champions need – the ability to dig in and fight for everything.
The game again finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. Seoul’s penalty area was the least crowded place in the whole city after 12 minutes and Chunnam striker Lee Gyu-ro took advantage to fire a fierce shot low into the home net. Three minutes later however, Seoul drew level. A delightfully measured slide-rule pass from Ki Sung-yong gave Jung Jo-gook an easy chance from close range.
The excitement didn’t last and the game drifted towards penalties. Two Seoul players missed the target completely – Kim Sung-yung and, dismally, Lee Jong-min. Ki Sung-yong saw his kick well-saved. It was the last action for Ki in the Seoul shirt. He has already signed for Scottish giants Celtic in a $4 million deal and heads to Glasgow at the end of the year.
Kwak Tae-whi scored the winning penalty. The international defender has spent much of the season battling injury but was fresh as a daisy as he shot home emphatically against his old club.
"The players were confident about defeating FC Seoul before the game,'' Chunnam coach Park Hang-seo said."They figured out their opponents and were more confident. We will focus on regaining our fitness level for the second round match on Wednesday.”
The match was the last in the three season tenure of Senol Gunes. It was a widely expected that the man who took Turkey to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup would be off home at the end of the season.
Hometown club Trabzonspor had come knocking earlier in the year but now the Korean contract has ended, Gunes is free to head home back to the Black Sea and that is where he will probably be seen very soon.
“I am leaving but I will never forget the fans in Seoul and my time here,” Gunes told Seoul's official site.
“We have come a long way together and I am sure that next year the club will keep improving and Seoul will become champions.”
That didn't happen under FIFA's coach of 2002 and the team also exited this year's Asian Champions League at the quarter-final stage.
“Though I had a very happy three years here, I am sorry and frustrated that we didn’t win. This year was especially disappointing and I am sad as anyone.”
While Seoul missed out on a first title, Gunes did enough to give the capital club a reputation for playing decent football and giving young footballers a chance. The likes of Park Chu-young, Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong become well-respected players around Asia and have all earned big money deals in Europe.
The challenge for the new coach is to help the many young players at the club reach the same level.
Gunes will not be in the Land of the Morning Calm to see which of the three teams remaining lift the K-League trophy. Seongnam conquered Incheon United after a penalty shootout despite having two defenders and their coach sent off. A subsequent and narrow win over Chunnam Dragons has earned a semi-final match against Asian champions Pohang Steelers.
The rested Steelers are strong favourites against a weakened and tired Seongnam side and should win through to the final where Jeonbuk Motors are waiting.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com
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