The Cinderella story faces its toughest testAfter winning the first leg of the Korea Professional Football League (K-League) championship 2-1 on the road, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC is confident it can win the title in front of 30,000 home fans on Sunday.
But Ulsan Hyundai FC, the playoffs’ sixth and last seed, has shocked teams throughout the postseason and isn’t ready to throw in the towel on its Cinderella story.
Two goals from Brazilian forward Enio Oliveira Junior lifted Jeonbuk, the regular season champion, past Ulsan on Wednesday at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, North Gyeongsang.
After a 0-0 deadlock in the first half, Enio first put Jeonbuk on the scoreboard after converting a penalty in the 52nd minute. Ulsan defender Kwak Tae-hwi netted a free kick in the 61st to even the score, but it was Enio again who put Jeonbuk ahead with his left foot in the 79th.
The second leg of the championship kicks off at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday at Jeonbuk’s Jeonju World Cup Stadium in North Jeolla.
Home-pitch advantage has been a major factor for Jeonbuk throughout the season. The team has only lost once at home and that defeat occurred nine months ago.
History is also on Jeonbuk’s side. No K-League team that dropped the first leg of the championship has ever come back to win the title.
“We are not thinking about losing at home,” Jeonbuk defender and captain Cho Sung-hwan said after the game to Ilgan Sports, the JoongAng Ilbo’s daily sports newspaper. “To be better, we are going to score a lot of goals and boost up the celebration.”
Jeonbuk coach Choi Kang-hee, who also led the team to the K-League title in 2009, admitted that his squad is favored to win the title, but said he is not too hyped up and will prepare for the match thoroughly.
“In this kind of short-term competition, you need to concentrate until the final whistle,” Choi said. “We will prepare and we will not be disorganized during the 90 minutes of the match and we will win at home.”
But Ulsan has pulled off upsets before, and the team hopes for another stunning away victory on Sunday.
Since the away-goal rule is applied to this championship series, Ulsan needs to score at least two more goals than Jeonbuk to pull off an upset. If the 90 minutes ends with Ulsan winning 2-1, the game will be decided in extra time.
Ulsan, the first No. 6 seed to reach the finals since the six-team playoff format was adopted in 2007, has beaten three top teams - Seoul, Suwon and Pohang - to reach this stage. All three playoff victories came on the road.
“Our players are confident in playing away games,” Ulsan coach Kim Ho-kon said. “We won three games away and since the last game is also on the road, we will try our best to win.”
Ulsan has played four matches in 12 days, but the players said that they are now used to this tight schedule and will be fit for the final match on Sunday.
“I think Jeonbuk can play passively in the second leg,” Ulsan forward Seol Ki-hyeon said. “If we score early in the game, we can get a victory.”
But what concerns Ulsan fans most is the absence of two starting members. Defender Lee Jae-sung and midfielder Ko Seul-ki will miss the final match as both players received their second yellow card of the playoffs on Wednesday.
“I warned players about the yellow cards, but it just happened during the match,” Kim said. “Kang Min-soo and Park Seung-il will fill the void left by these two players.”
By Joo Kyung-don [firstname.lastname@example.org]