For at least two of South Korea’s four representatives in the Asian Champions League, this week is make or break time. The quartet stands at the halfway point of the group stage with three games gone and three to go. With the top two in each group of four progressing to the second round, now is the time to start picking up points.
Interestingly, each of Korea’s four hopefuls occupies different positions in their respective groups. Suwon Bluewings are first in Group G, Pohang Steelers second in Group H, FC Seoul third in Group F and Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I fourth in Group E. All four are in with a chance of the next round but equally, all four could fail.
Much will depend on this week’s action when, for the second Data Hk successive matchday, the four Korean teams take on Chinese opposition. In football, China has something of an inferiority complex when it comes to South Korea. This stems from the fact that in 27 meetings between the two national teams at senior and Olympic level, Korea has never lost.
This gave rise to a term in the Chinese media called ‘Koreaphobia’ – the fear of playing Korea on the football pitch. As you may expect, it was something that was gleefully adopted by the Seoul press too.
Before every meeting of the respective national teams, the Chinese coach tells reporters how this time, the jinx will be lifted and the curse broken forever. One day, that will happen but until it does, Seoul soccer scribes intend to make the most of it.
Chinese Super League clubs have occasionally tasted victory against their K-league equivalents but not often, and not enough for Korean fans to stop looking down at the Middle Kingdom’s version of the beautiful game.
Two weeks ago, the four games between the teams ended 2-2. China won the two matches at home while in the Land of the Morning Calm, Korea triumphed.
The same teams meet again this week. Suwon is in the best position, its 2-1 defeat in Shanghai was the first loss of the competition and the Bluewings are still, despite poor form at home, top of the group.
In more need of the points is FC Seoul. The capital club started the season so well with a 6-1 win at Chunnam Dragons in the K-League and then, just three days later, followed that with a 4-2 victory at the Indonesian home of Sriwijaya.
The pundits prematurely predicted a season of domination but it has all gone a little wrong since. Seoul has won just one of the following five K-league matches and lost both of its subsequent Asian games. After ten goals in two games, just five have followed in seven.
Coach Senol Gunes is keen to make his mark on the continent in what will probably be his last season in Korea. To do that, anything less than a home win against Shandong Luneng will be disappointing. Seoul lost at the Jinan home of the Chinese champions two weeks previously thought the game was more competitive than the 2-0 scoreline perhaps suggested.
Despite their indifferent domestic form, Seoul and Suwon are regarded as Korea’s two strongest clubs and it will be a blow to fans if the pair fall at the first hurdle.
Korea’s other two representatives are both looking to build on their 1-0 wins at home two weeks ago. A repeat of those results in China will see Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Hyundai Horang-I in good positions.
Pohang are better off. The Steelers travel to Tianjin to take on the Chinese league leaders. A win could see the south-eastern club go top of its group with two matches left. Tianjin, a team that has spent heavily in recent months, has just one point from three games and needs nothing less than a win.
Ulsan Hyundai Horang-i have been struggling at home and abroad this season but finally picked up a win two weeks at home to Beijing and that followed that last weekend with a first K-League win away at Jeju.
The Tigers need at least a tie in the Chinese capital. It won’t be easy, Beijing, coached by a Korean, are under pressure after the owners invested significant sums of money in the off-season.