Lineup set for K-League final seriesAs soon as the ball left his right boot 90 feet from the goal during the Suwon Samsung Bluewings’ match against the Pohang Steelers on Sunday, Baek Ji-hoon had good feelings about the shot.
The Bluewings’ midfielder said of his shot in the K-League semifinal match, “I just had this sensation; I thought the ball was going in for sure.”
Indeed it did, and the 21-year-old’s score was all Samsung needed to beat the Steelers. In the two-leg, home-and-away championship series this Sunday and on Nov. 25, the Bluewings will take on Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, who defeated FC Seoul 1-0 on Saturday.
The first half of the Bluewings-Steelers match was quiet, with each team getting just two shots on goal. But the Gyeonggi province Bluewings opened the second half with a couple of chances, as Song Chong-gug and Seo Dong-hyun attacked the net with mid-range shots in the 51st and 52nd minutes.
Then Baek came through with his game-deciding shot that squeezed below the crossbar.
Baek, the former captain of the national youth team, was traded from FC Seoul last summer, and after toiling as a part-time starter in a defensive midfield position in Seoul, Baek flourished with coach Cha Bun-kun’s attacking strategies.
Baek scored four goals in 13 regular season games for his new team; three of them were game winners.
“I am happy to score a goal in such an important game, but everyone played well today,” Baek told Yonhap. “I was confident that as long as we could beat Pohang, we could win the final matches against anyone. Chunma will not be an easy opponent, but we beat them 3-0 at home this season.”
The young midfielder admitted that he’s become comfortable as an attacking midfielder, and his coach later told reporters that Baek’s talent is great for his new position.
“Baek has superb ball-handling skills, and is an aggressive player,” Cha said, after starting Baek at defensive midfield and then pushing him back up front in the second half. “I think the front line is where he can truly shine.”
But Baek wasn’t the only hero for the Bluewings. Midfielder Song and forward Kim Dae-ui played through calf and groin injuries, respectively. Song, normally a defensive wing, replaced midfielder and team captain Kim Nam-il, who hurt his pelvis last week.
“It was a difficult game for us with so many injuries,” Cha said after the win. “We wanted to play tight defense and look for some fast-break opportunities. That’s why we had four midfielders today.” He usually fields three.
Cha acknowledged Ilhwa Chunma as “a well-balanced club with great instincts for the net,” but said, “Anything can happen on the pitch.”
Chunma reached the championship match with another 1-0 victory, as Brazilian forward Mota banged home the winner in the 40th minute. The goal provided a feel-good story in what had been a dour defensive contest.
In an early April game, Mota suffered a torn ligament in his right ankle and a broken right fibula after a tackle by Gyeongnam FC’s midfielder Kim Seong-jae. The Brazilian left for his native country for treatment and rehabilitation.
Mota, the K-League’s top goal scorer in 2004, returned in August, but wound up getting only four goals in 16 games. Still, the player’s perseverance and Coach Kim Hak-beom’s faith paid off.
“This is payback time for us, because we had a great shot at the championship last season and couldn’t pull it off,” Mota said, referring to Chunma’s upset at the hands of the Ulsan Hyundai Tigers in the semifinals last year. “We know the final will be more difficult than today, but we’re confident.”
The match was marred by an officiating controversy. In the 38th minute, FC Seoul’s Kim Han-yoon kicked one in off a corner, but the Chunma defender Park Jin-sub deflected it away from the net. The television replays showed Park cleared the shot after the ball had already gone across the goal line.
But assistant referee Kim Dae-young, who took part in the 2006 World Cup, ruled it a no-goal. Two minutes later, Mota scored to give Chunma the winning margin.
“Our players gave all they had for a year, and for the season to end like this is a shame,” said FC Seoul coach Lee Jang-soo. “I can’t understand how someone with World Cup experience missed a call like that.”
Lee said he wondered whether the presence of former Chunma owner Kwak Jeong-hwan as the league commissioner affected the ruling.
Chunma’s Coach Kim said he had no comment on the issue, but that was perhaps because he had other worries on his mind.
Over the weekend, Kim and the Bluewings’ coach Cha feuded with the Korea Football Association over the use of their players for some national team friendly matches this week.
There is one game scheduled for the senior national team against Iran today. The Olympic squad plays home-and-away against Japan, the first match here yesterday and the second in Japan next Tuesday. The association asked all players on the preliminary rosters to join the national teams. The Suwon team has four players, and the Seongnam club has three on the national team and four on the Olympic team. Both Kim and Cha strongly criticized the association’s demands.
All three matches are inconsequential, they noted, because Korea has already clinched a spot in the Asian Cup, and the games against Japan are another round of grudge matches between the two regional rivals.
Eventually, the association took a step back, and the senior team did not take anyone from either the Chunma or the Bluewings when it left for Iran on Monday. But the Olympic team members reported to training for the game against Japan yesterday.
After saying “There will be no future for professional soccer in Korea the way things are going,” Cha did send his players ―Cho Won-hee and Kim Nam-il for the senior team, and Baek Ji-hoon and Seo Dong-hyun for the Olympics team ― on Sunday evening, but Cho and Kim rejoined the club Monday.
Kim, the Chunma manager, said he “would absolutely not send my players” and kept his word.
The senior team plays Iran tonight, and will arrive back in Korea tomorrow.
by Yoo Jee-ho
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