Monday, April 2, 2007

K-League Taking Shape

After four games of the new K-League season, four teams are level on ten points.

Only goal difference separates the leading quartet –Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, Pohang Steelers, Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I and FC Seoul.

Ten points from a possible twelve mean that none of the four have yet to experience defeat so far this season but one of the pre-season favorites Suwon Samsung Bluewings can no longer say the same.

Before last weekend’s action, Suwon was part of that exclusive club. Unfortunately for the loyal and passionate Bluewings fans, Sunday saw a 3-1 defeat at Seongnam. That bitter pill would not have been sweetened at all with the fact that the scorer of two of those goals for Seongnam, Kim Dong-hyun (see picture), was released by Suwon coach Cha Bum-keun two years ago.

Cha has his work cut out to keep those fans, the “Grand Bleu,” happy. After being thrashed 4-1 by rivals FC Seoul ten days earlier, the 2004 champions needed to bounce back against Seongnam and not just to keep morale high. It was Seongnam that defeated Suwon in the championship play-off last November to lift a seventh title. The cold dish of revenge stays in the Suwon refrigerator for a little longer.

Suwon is not short of big names as four heroes from the 2002 World Cup wear the blue shirt on a regular basis -not least the destroyer of Italy Ahn Jung-hwan and the bane of Spain, Lee Woon-jae. These two experienced players watched Sunday’s action from the bench however; victims of Cha’s quest to find the right blend in his star-studded squad though the coach was philosophical after the defeat.

“These kind of things happen during the course of a season and we need to be strong mentally,” he told reporters. If we keep losing like this then we will find ourselves in a dire situation but we will bounce back.” the coach said on Sunday.

The situation is brighter a few miles north in the capital. New coach and media darling Senol Gunes may not have brought any players since joining FC Seoul in January but he certainly is changing the way the team plays. Fans at Seoul World Cup Stadium have seen more attractive football in March alone under former Turkey national team coach than they did in the whole of last season under Lee Jang-soo.

Gunes is popular with the fans and press who love such statements as: “Seoul could win the Turkish league. At least they would finish in the top five."

The same could perhaps be said then of Pohang and Ulsan and they should be in a similar lofty positions in the K-League in November when the top six teams enter the championship play-off series.

The south-eastern clubs have slipped under the radar of much of the media for the time being. The main writers of the main soccer publications don’t venture down to Gyeongsang Province too often.

Pohang is also a club without stars after the departure of Lee Dong-guk to Middlesbrough and the Premier League. Under Brazilian boss Sergio Farias, the Steelers have the habit of picking up points with the minimum of fuss as demonstrated with a 2-1 win at the home of Asian Champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Ulsan won the title two years ago and look handily placed to challenge again especially as the Tigers have yet to really get into their stride. Coach Kim Jung-nam, like his Pohang counterpart won’t be too concerned at the current focus on Seoul and Suwon.

There is still a long way to go.

Uruguay Lesson

On the international scene, March wasn’t the best of months as Uruguay came to Seoul and won 2-0 with a comfortable, even depressing, ease.

The story was a familiar one. Korea started well, enjoyed possession, looked energetic, lost concentration in defence and found itself a goal down.

The 19th minute strike from Carlos Bueno gave the South Americans license to sit back and allow their opponents to have the ball in their half, comfortable in the knowledge that the Koreans, even with their European-based stars, rarely looked capable of delivering a final ball that was capable of penetrating the blue wall.

With a lack of cutting edge in the final third, Korea often struggles to break the defensive walls erected by the likes of Syria or Iraq but the slick Uruguayans are on a different level and deserved their win. When Bueno added a second before the break, there was no doubt in the less-than-full Seoul World Cup Stadium as to the final result.

“We played with a lot of energy, they were more mature and played more with their brain. This is what we have to learn,” said coach Pim Verbeek after the game.
“To break down a team like that we have to be faster. We were dangerous outside the box but we never gave one good pass inside to cause problems.

"They defended well and made no mistakes. We have to learn from this game and we still have three or more months before the Asian Cup. If we are to do well at the Asian Cup, we cannot make defensive mistakes and we have to be sharper in attack."

The media was muted in its criticism as there was a general acceptance that the game was a friendly against professional and impressive opponents. The main gripe was concerning Pim Verbeek’s decision to continue selecting Kim Dong-jin and Kim Sang-sik in the centre of defence when the pair don’t play there for their clubs.

The bright start that Senol Gunes has made at FC Seoul has given the newspapers lots of ideas about comparing Pim Verbeek and the man who took Turkey to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup.
Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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