Friday, September 6, 2013

September Split in South Korea

K League
The K League Classic Divides 

The first day of September marks the end of summer in South Korea and the end of the league as we know it. From now, until the end of the season, the K-League’s 14 teams will be split into two Known simply as Group A and Group B, the top half will fight it out for the title while those downstairs will be hoping to avoid relegation.

After 26 rounds, there are 12 left, meaning that the teams in each group will meet each other twice. Authorities hope that this leads to more meaningful games and more excitement. It does for the top half but for Group B, not so much.  

The Title Race is ON

Pohang Steelers are in pole position but only just. Two straight defeats going into the split have cut the lead that the three-time Asian champions have to a single point. Indeed, the top four are just three points apart. It is set to be quite a finish.

The Steelers are not the real story, though the absence of foreign stars is certainly unusual and of interest, and neither are Ulsan Horangi, a point behind in second. In the past few weeks, it has been all about FC Seoul and Jeonbuk Motors. The top two from 2012, have both put together quite a run of results.

Seoul, don’t forget, started the season with four points from the first seven games and even after that, for a while, were not exactly the model of consistency. Nobody ever really thought that the team would miss out on the top half of the league but the defence of the title looked over almost before it begun. But Choi Yong-soo’s men ended the first stage with 28 points from a possible 30 and even the two points dropped were done so in slightly unlucky fashion with a late winner ruled out when the goal looked good.

Some of the wins were dramatic in the extreme with last-minute victories something of specialty as the games against Incheon United and Daejeon Citizen showed. And then there was the long-awaited and much-enjoyed win over rivals Suwon Bluewings. It could be that the team's Asian Champions League campaign, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia at the home of Al Ahli in the first leg of the quarter-final leaves the semi-final within reach, slows down the Seoul domestic charge.

The resurgence of Jeonbuk Motors since the return of Choi Kang-hee from his spell with the national team has been only a little less impressive. Just one defeat in 12 games, with 27 points collected have put the 2011 champions right back in it and that is even with the loss of playmaker Eninho to China.  

Four into two didn't go

On the final day, there was a four-way sprint to jump and hold on to the fast-retreating ladder that gave the final two spots in the upper level. Suwon didn't look to be in much danger of missing out and got the point they needed and, in the end, it was needed as the other three teams all won.

That meant Jeju United had no chance as the islanders, who have faded of late, needed Busan I’Park and Seongnam Ilhwa to slip. Few gave Busan a chance at Pohang but the well-drilled southerners team collected a dramatic 2-1 win at the home of the leaders. That meant that Seongnam had to win by two goals and the Yellows started well with a first minute strike against Gyeongnam but try as they might, they just could not get the second.

Beating the drop
 
Not that Seongnam and Jeju are in danger of relegation as they are 25 and 24 points respectively above the trapdoor. Daejeon Citizen have just 14 points, one less than Gangwon, the other team sitting in the drop zone.

Gangwon recently fired coach Kim Hak-beom, harshly in the view of many, and hired Kim Yong-kab, assistant at Chinese powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande. Kim has left a team that can't stop winning and is now with one that can't stop losing. He hasn't been able to stop the rot with four straight defeats making a losing streak of eight for the easterners.

Seongnam and Jeju may be safe but the likes of Gyeongnam and especially Daegu will have to watch their step.  

Hong searching for a win

Four games, one goal and no wins. It does not make for good reading but then it does not tell the full story for South Korea under new coach Hong Myong-bo.

July's East Asian Cup saw the Taeguk Warriors record goalless draws with Australia and China before being defeated by Japan in Seoul. The first two should really have ended in victory. The game against the Socceroos was as one-sided as a goalless draw could possibly be and the stalemate against China once again saw the opposition goalkeeper in great form and the home strikers in generous mood.

The game against the Asian champions was slightly different, and controversial with banners and flags making headlines. Korea put Japan under a good deal of pressure that the Samurai Blue largely withstood before snatching a last-minute winner.

Then came an August goalless draw with Peru in Suwon that followed earlier patterns of domination and then frustration. September 6 against Haiti in Incheon marks the first time that Hong has summoned the European-based stars. Failure to win that game will not go down well.

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