Monday, December 1, 2008

K-League Prayers Answered

Just as anxious Korean mothers head to temples to pray for good test results for their children, football chiefs in South Korea have been doing something similar in the hope that the championship play-off final will be between arch-rivals Suwon Samsung Bluewings and FC Seoul.

It came true on a chilly Sunday afternoon as FC Seoul defeated Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I 4-2 in the penultimate round to set up the 'dream final'. With the national team winning 2-0 in Saudi Arabia recently, what had looked like being a bad year for Korean soccer is about to end on a high. "It's the game we all wanted," smiled a Korean Football Association official at me as the final whistle blew.

He probably wasn't speaking for the good folks of Ulsan but most other fans in the Land of the Morning Calm would agree. The reason is two mouth-watering clashes between Korea's two biggest rivals. The first match takes place in the capital on Wednesday and the action then moves to Suwon on Sunday when the destination of the round-shaped trophy will be decided.

Seoul got off to a great start against Ulsan with a thunderous shot from Jung Jo-gook. The patriot made a surprise return from a serious head injury. He soon jettisoned his batman-style protective mask and got his team on their way.

 FC Seoul's Jung Jo-gook

1-1 after 90 minutes, there were four goals in extra time, three of them for Seoul. Suwon's defence is not likely to be quite so obliging. It will be tight.

As FC Seoul's boss Senol Gunes said after Sunday's win, 'We have been the best two teams in the league this season, we finished on the same points and we have the most fans. Now we will see who the real champion is."

The Turkish tactician is right. After 26 games of the regular season, Suwon finished first and Seoul second –the only thing that separated them was the fact that Suwon scored one more goal. Six teams progress into the play-offs and after last season when the fifth-placed Pohang Steelers took the trophy, it is a relief that the top two can now fight it out.

In their two league meetings this year, Suwon won in Seoul and then Seoul returned the favour in Suwon in October. Both matches were played in front of big crowds – the 2007 fixture between the two drew a record 55,000 – and both were tight and passionate encounters.

After finishing first in the league, the Bluewings have had the luxury of sitting on their perch and watching the five other teams fight it out. Suwon will be fully rested after no games for 24 days though it can work both ways. A rest at the end of a season can be a great chance for injured players to recover but almost a month without a competitive game is not ideal. In a play-off final, there is not much time to shake off cobwebs.

Seoul has no such problem. Gunes may not have been too happy with the match with Ulsan going into extra time just three days before the big Suwon game but it should ensure that his players are sharp. Star midfielder Lee Chung-yong has served his suspension and will be drafted in to the team.

The big guns are returning then. Expect fireworks...

Copyright: John Duerden &

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