Thursday, November 19, 2009

Korea Gears Up For Play-Offs

Korea Gears Up For Play-Offs.
With most attention on the exploits of Pohang Steelers in the Asian Champions League and the national team’s friendly matches in Europe against Denmark and Serbia, the fact that the K-League is about to embark upon its championship play-off series has almost gone unnoticed.

Six teams are still in with a chance of the domestic title. One is Jeonbuk Motors. The team that finished first in the regular season gets the reward of being able to lie in wait in the final match in December and see which of the other five teams will be left standing.

Four are in action this weekend – though only two will survive to go to the next stage. The first play-off takes place on Saturday in the capital as FC Seoul meets Chunnam Dragons and the following day, Incheon United travel to Seongnam Chunma. The two teams that emerge from the quarrelling quartet will meet each other next Wednesday. The winner of that will take on Pohang, second placed in the league, in the semi-final.

Seoul finished the regular season in third place and out of all the four teams that are in action this weekend, the capital club is the one that really doesn’t want to be in this situation. Senol Gunes's men spent most of the season in the top two spots and didn’t expect to be fighting it out with four others just to reach the semi-final.

It all happened on the last day of the regular season, ironically against Chunnam at Seoul World Cup Stadium. The host needed to win to confirm second place and if Jeonbuk lost, it would go top.

Thirteen minutes from the end, Seoul striker Dejan Damjanovic, who had earlier missed a penalty, fired a fierce shot into the top corner of the Dragons’ Den from a distance of 25 meters. It was a great strike but the way in which he celebrated was less impressive. Running towards the Chunnam bench, the Montenegrin shouted at the visiting staff and threw his shirt on the grass in front of them.

The referee threw the excitable European out of the game though he had to be restrained from confronting Chunnam coach Park Hang-seo on his way off the field. The Dragons took advantage of their one-man advantage to equalize in the final minute to drag Seoul down from second to third.

Another consequence of Damjanovic’s dismissal is the fact that he will not be able to play on Saturday. Even without their star striker however, Seoul will be confident of progressing to the next stage in front of its own fans.

Chunnam finished in sixth place, eleven points behind Seoul. The team from South Jeolla Province has a star foreign striker of its own, Brazilian Adrian Chuva. The South American scored 13 goals this season and with Korean international defender Kwak Tae-hwi returning to fitness, the Dragons have a chance to recreate Pohang’s march to the 2007 title.

Two years ago, after an unspectacular season in which the team finished fifth, the Steelers suddenly slipped into top gear in the play-offs and defeated Gyeongnam, Ulsan, Suwon and then Seongnam (twice) to lift the golden K-League trophy.

Incheon finished fifth this time round but don't really look like a team ready to put Korea’s best teams to the sword. The West Coasters are just happy to be in the play-offs for the first time since 2005 after coming close on a number of occasions in recent years.

The team, built on a strong defence line, has trundled along in the top six all season. Coach Ilja Petkovic took his team to the south coast on a final day of the regular season needing to defeat Busan I’Park to confirm a top six finish. A desperate mistake from Busan goalkeeper gave Incheon an unlikely goal and a vital win.

The trip to Seongnam is much shorter for Incheon but the hosts are much stronger. Seongnam have a good record against Incheon over the years and over the last few weeks, the Gyeonngi giant has been in excellent form, winning seven out of its final ten games of the regular season. Sadly for the Yellows however, they lost out in the FA Cup final last weekend to Suwon Bluewings after a penalty shootout.

All these play-off games are individual cup finals and anything could happen.

No comments: