|Park Ji-Sung (right) from PSV Eindhoven fights AC Milan’s Philippe Mexes for the ball during the Champions League playoffs’ first-leg soccer match between PSV and AC Milan at Philips stadium in Eindhoven, southern Netherlands, Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap News)|
Eight years after Park Ji-sung parted ways with PSV Eindhoven, the South Korean midfielder was again roaming Philips stadium on Tuesday, as the Dutch team celebrated his return by holding Italian powerhouse AC Milan to a 1-1 draw.
The 32-year-old veteran started for PSV in game one of the Champions League playoff matches against Milan, playing for 68 minutes despite a recently sustained injury.
Park connected several timely passes and covered 8.81 kilometers, living up to his nickname “oxygen tank” given by South Korean fans for his energy and work ethic.
While not quite as active as he was in his heyday, Park led his younger teammates with his abundant big-stage experience. The entire PSV squad has played only 62 games in the Champions League, with Park active for 54 of them.
Despite Park’s efforts, Milan jumped to an early 1-0 lead with Stephan El Shaarawy’s goal in the first half.
About 15 minutes into the second half, Park hit Jeffrey Bruma with a pass which Bruma converted to a mid-range shot. Although the shot was deflected by Milan’s goalie Christian Abbiati, Tim Matavz pounced on the ball the score the equalizer.
The former South Korean captain was replaced by Florian Jozefzoon midway through the second half, but not before thunderous cheers from the home crowd. The Dutch fans welcomed Park back with “Song for Park,” which used to ring in the arena during Park’s three-year stint with the team.
PSV and Milan will play their second leg of the European club tournament at San Siro Stadium in Milan next Wednesday. The result will determine which team will advance to the group stages.
The relationship between PSV and Park dates back to 2003: Park had just made his name on the international stage as a member of South Korea’s famed 2002 World Cup squad that made it to the semifinals of the tournament. Park’s breakout performance, including his winning goal against Portugal in South Korea’s final group match, helped him establish his reputation as one of the world’s promising new talents.
Guus Hiddink, who led the national team to its success in the World Cup, became the head coach of PSV after the tournament and took Park under his wing in 2003. Park rose to stardom in the three seasons he played for his manager and mentor.
He became the first South Korean to score a goal in the Champions League in 2005 against AC Milan.
In 2005, Park moved to Manchester United and became the first South Korean to play in the English Premier League. There, Park became a key player of manager Alex Ferguson’s squad that garnered multiple honors including three straight league titles from 2006-07 to 2008-09.
Park signed with Queens Park Rangers after the 2011-12 season. His transition from support to leader, however, was unsuccessful as he was ailed by injuries the entire season and was eventually stripped of captaincy.
The 2012-13 season turned out to be a dismal one for QPR as well, as they finished at the bottom of the standings and was relegated to the second division. After the season, Park moved to PSV on a one-year loan.
By Yoon Min-sik