“Seongnam are the second strongest team in the league but we are the strongest,” said Pohang Steelers boss Sergio Farias after his team defeated the K-League leaders 2-1 last Saturday. The Brazilian is exaggerating his team’s abilities but at the moment in Korea, just as the weather finally settles into seasonable temperatures, the football scene has gone haywire.
How else can you explain Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ 5-2 thrashing of Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the once-feared Big Bird Stadium? Earlier in the season, Suwon couldn’t stop winning and the Motors couldn’t start. Now the Jeonju club collected three successive wins; Suwon have lost five of their last seven.
For the Jeonju-based team, the fried egg on the Dominoqq Online bi-bim-bap was the five star showing in Suwon, after the meeting between the two earlier in the season had been a bad-tempered one.
In May, the Gyeonngi team went to Jeonju to win 2-1 with the last kick of the game. By that 94th minute, emotions were running high after Jeonbuk striker Cho Jae-jin scored and then, in the view of the Suwon fans, celebrated provocatively in front of the massed blue ranks. Cho told them he was only following what Suwon’s Seo Dong-hyun had done earlier in the game. Suwon fans told him that they would ‘see him at the Big Bird’.
Cho Jae-jin pumped up for Suwon
They came, they saw but Cho conquered. The much-maligned male model was roundly booed and jeered on his return to Gyeonggi but he quickly made the catcalls stick in blue craws. Cho put Jeonbuk ahead and although Suwon soon equalized, four goals from the men in green in ten second half minutes stunned the home fans and kept the visitors’ hopes of a place in the top six and entry to the championship play-off series alive. It was also the most goals that Suwon goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae has ever conceded in a single match.
“I expected it,” smiled Cho after the game, not referring to the 5-2 scoreline of course but the reception from the home fans. “It didn’t bother me. I was just focused on the game. In fact, it motivated me to do better.”
The feeling of defeat is becoming increasingly familiar for Blues boss Cha Bum-keun. “Our condition is poor,” said the legend of Korean soccer. “We have many injuries but most importantly because of results, the atmosphere around the team is bad.”
It certainly is. A comprehensive 3-1 defeat at Jeju United the week previously and a 5-2 thrashing at home at the hands of another mid-table team leaves Suwon’s season in danger of meltdown. It is a big test for coach Cha, one known for buying good players but his ability to build a team is not quite so respected. Runs like the current one happen and are never easy for a coach to break.
The defeat sent Suwon, so long the leaders, down into third place and looking over a shoulder at the approaching Ulsan in fourth.
It is FC Seoul that are the ones to watch. The capital club are unbeaten for 15 league matches and brushed aside Chunnam Dragons 3-0 on Sunday to move above Suwon but below Seongnam. It wasn’t the best of performances for the hosts but confidence is coursing through the veins of the players and with Dejan Damjanovic in great form in attack, Seoul are looking good at a good time.
With Ulsan and Pohang looking fairly safe in fourth and fifth, a number of clubs are chasing the sixth and final play-off spot with all the fervour of a tired Seoul salaryman eyeing a free subway seat in the evening rush hour.
The Uniteds of Jeju and Incheon are in there fighting along with Gyeongnam FC, a resurgent Jeonbuk and an unpredictable Daegu. The play-off system has its critics but there is no denying that at this stage of the season, it provides a fascinating sideshow to the increasingly fierce race at the top.