Thursday, November 21, 2013

Progress made on all fronts in Korea

K League
Tight at top and bottom

The Korean season is coming to a close but the final week or so promises to be full of action at both bottom and top, even if quite a few of those in between are starting to dream of, or dread, 2014. Ulsan Horangi took the 2012 Asian Champions League title but have benefitted domestically after not qualifying for the 2013 version of the continental competition. Focusing on the league alone has really helped Kim Ho-gon’s men stride into the lead.

Going into the weekend’s round, Ulsan are two points clear at the summit above their only challengers Pohang Steelers although Pohang have played a game more with just two matches remaining.

These two south-eastern rivals have pulled away from a fading pack. Pohang have won the last four games, a recent record surpassed only by Ulsan with 15 points taken out of a possible 15. Striker Kim Shin-wook has been banging in the goals with 19 this season with Rafinha helping out with ten after returning from injury in the summer. This partnership – the original little and large combo –has been working very well. With Japanese midfielder Chikashi Masuda pulling the strings in midfield with Han Sung-woon consistently dangerous out wide, Ulsan have a constant goal threat and their strong defence means that a title is within reach.

With Pohang defeating Jeonbuk Motors on penalties in the FA Cup final in October, there is already some silverware in the Steelers’ cupboard. Hwang Sun-hong’s men have been consistent without really hitting the heights this season. Even so, a title would be a fantastic achievement.

The scramble to avoid the trapdoor

Jeonbuk and Seoul look to have a place in the 2014 Asian Champions League place in the bag leaving much attention on the battle to avoid the drop, a fight that has really got going in recent weeks. The bottom two go down while the team in 14th plays off against the winner of the second division. The bottom three Daejeon, Daegu and Gangwon have all started winning even if it is all a little late for Daejeon.

The team has taken 12 points from the last four games which would be great had it not managed just 16 from the 32 before that. A stress-related illness in October had coach Kim In-wan indisposed as his assistant Cho Jin ho has done a fine job. Daejeon are four points from safety with just two games left to play, if it happens, it will be the greatest escape since relegation was introduced in 2012. Gangwon also looked dead and buried but the situation in the east was not quite as dire. Under new coach Kim Yong-gap, they have taken five wins from the last seven and have moved out of the automatic drop zone, ahead of Daegu by three points.

Daegu's recent form has not been quite as impressive. They are three points behind Gangwon and Gyeongnam with three games left to play. The final game of the season when Gangwon come to visit could be decisive. Gyeongnam have slipped down into trouble with only goal difference keeping them in 13th. Just four wins from the last 16 has put the team in trouble with fans in September demanding the head of Ilija Petrovic. The club stood by Serbia’s 2006 World Cup coach and it remains to be seen if such loyalty will be rewarded.

Seoul lose out to Guangzhou

FC Seoul failed in their bid to become champions of Asia for the first time, losing to Guangzhou Evergrande in the final of the 2013 competition on away goals. Over 55,000 fans witnessed an exciting 2-2 draw in the first leg in the Korean capital on October 26. Seoul drew first blood through Sergio Escudero only for Elkeson to head Marcello Lippi’s men level on the half hour. It was looking grim for the K-League team just after the break when Gao Lin put the Chinese visitors ahead but Dejan Damjanovic gave the hosts a deserved equaliser four minutes from time.

Guangzhou controlled much of the second leg at home in southern China on November 9 and the pressure finally paid off after 58 minutes when Elkeson scored a fine goal. Just four minutes later however, Damjanovic silenced the stadium but Seoul were unable to get the all-important winner.

Better news for national team

For South Korea coach Hong Myong-bo, performances since he was appointed in July had been better than results but neither were perfect. That was why a 2-1 win over Switzerland in Seoul on November 15 was so well-received. The Swiss took an early lead but after the break, Korea sparkled thanks to Lee Chung-yong, Lee Keun-ho and Son Heung-min. The team ranked seven in the world did tire a little but just couldn’t keep up with the lightning-fast attacking play of the Taeguk Warriors.

A 2-1 defeat against Russia in Dubai four days later was not quite so good but still, there was little to choose between the two teams. This time Korea took an early lead but a goalkeeper howler from Jung Sung-ryung, struggling at the moment, let the Russians back in at a time when it was looking likelier that Korea would extend their lead. Progress is being made though there is still some way to go.

No comments: