Jeju United, FC Seoul open action
The season is just getting into stride but that doesn’t mean there are not already some must-win, or at least, don’t-lose games this week.
That doesn’t apply to the K-League yet ― that season is just two games old. Four Korean teams are about to play their second match of the Asian Champions League and with just six games in total in the group stage, there is not much time to recover from mistakes.
The continent’s flagship club competition consists of 32 teams split into eight groups of four. Each meets home and away with the top two progressing to the Round of 16, which marks the start of the knockout phase. The picture will be much clearer after the games on Tuesday and Wednesday evening have taken place. Another good result for those that succeeded in the opening round would give Korea’s representatives a foot in the next stage. Another bad result for those that suffered a bad result in the opening outing would put them in serious danger of elimination.
Two of the four games involving K-League teams are at home. FC Seoul is in the best position after winning its opening match in the continental competition at the UAE home of Al Ain. Another victory on Tuesday evening over Hangzhou Greentown of China at Seoul World Cup Stadium would put the K-League team three points clear at the top of the group.
FC Seoul head coach Hwangbo Kwan takes part in a press conference on Monday. (Yonhap News)
That would give new coach Hwangbo Kwan breathing space to try and achieve success in the K-League as well as overseas. The early signs are not good. A 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Suwon Bluewings was followed by a 1-1 tie at Daejeon Citizen. Hwangbo is already promising that things will improve and is already complaining about things like the state of the field ― early indicators, perhaps, that he is feeling the strain a little. He needs a good result. It won’t be easy. Hangzhou may be little-known outside China but has already defeated Japan champion Nagoya Grampus.
Suwon is the other club playing on home soil this week. The opposition is also Chinese and comes in the form of Shanghai Shenhua. Like Seoul, Suwon had a lengthy away trip in the opening match. The Bluewings returned from the home of Sydney FC with a satisfactory goalless tie. Ties away from home are only good if you also collect good results at home.
The club is on a high after two wins out of two in the K-League. Following the 2-0 triumph at Seoul, a first game of the season in front of the home fans started badly as Gwangju FC took the lead after just 25 seconds but two late goals from Croatian defender Mato Neretljak did the job.
“We made it difficult for ourselves by conceding such an early goal,” said Suwon coach Yoon Sung-hyo. “But we stayed calm and came back for the win. We still need time on the training pitch. We have lots of new players and we will improve as we get more games.”
Jeonbuk Motors has already defeated Chinese opposition in the competition with a 1-0 win over Shandong Luneng. The Jeonju club has a trip to Indonesia’s Arema Malang. The Southeast Asian team is the underdog in the group and is highly unlikely to finish in the top two. At home however, for the first time in this edition, the club will be a tough proposition and taking the scalp of a Korean team, especially one that was crowned Asian champion in 2006, would be cause for celebration. Even so, the Jeolla club will be disappointed with anything other than three points.
The Greens at least recovered from their opening day defeat at home to Chunnam Dragons to win 1-0 on the road at the home of defending Asian champion Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. “We were under pressure after the loss last week,” said coach Choi Kang-hee. “We bounced back well and need to continue this form in Indonesia.”
Jeju United is in the most precarious position. The islanders committed the cardinal sin in this kind of competition ― they lost at home. That 1-0 defeat at the hands of Tianjin Teda of China means that another loss in the first away game will be a grievous blow.
It will all happen at the home of Melbourne Victory. The Australians lost their opening game too and have just changed coaches. Whichever team ends up with nothing could be saying goodbye to its Asian hopes for another year. Jeju boss Park Kyung-hoon knows how important it is. “After losing the game to Tianjin, we know that we have to come back from Australia with a good result,” said Park after his team’s goalless draw at Incheon United on Saturday, a convenient fixture given the location of a certain international airport.
Korea’s four Asian ambassadors want to see a great deal more of the arrival and departure halls of Incheon over the next few months and the action this week will go a good deal of the way to determining whether they do so.
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org