After going undefeated in their first two matches, four South Korean football clubs went winless this week at the AFC Champions League.
At the top annual Asian club competition on Wednesday, the K League Classic’s Ulsan Hyundai, the 2012 AFC champ, played Guizhou Renhe of China to a 1-1 draw at home in Group H action. Ulsan remains in first place in the group with seven points.
Also on Wednesday, FC Seoul, the 2013 AFC runner-up, suffered its first loss of this year’s campaign, dropping to Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 on the road in their Group F match. The loss brought down FC Seoul from first to second in the group.
On Tuesday, an undermanned Pohang Steelers, the reigning South Korean champ, fought back from a two-goal deficit to manage a 2-2 draw against Shandong Luneng of China at home in Group E. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors didn’t have much luck against their Chinese opponent, losing to Guangzhou Evergrande, the 2013 AFC champ, 3-1 on the road in their Group G showdown.
Pohang remained in second place behind Shandong in Group E with five points. Jeonbuk, after suffering the first loss in the AFC this year, fell from first to second in Group G with four points.
The K League Classic has produced three AFC champions in the past five seasons. Despite a winless week, the four representatives this year remain on course to reach the knockout stage.
Ulsan was on the verge of winning its third consecutive match after Rafinha’s successful penalty in the 58th minute. Guizhou’s Yang Hao foiled that bid, however, by scoring the equalizer in the 87th minute.
Ulsan was in control for most of the match, but Jo Min-gook, the first-year head coach for Ulsan, gave a mea culpa on the disappointing result.
Jo replaced defensive midfielder Park Dong-hyuk with forward Caique with 10 minutes to go, looking to keep Ulsan’s foot on the pedal. Jo said he’d thought about sending in midfielder Chikashi Masuda, but switched his mind at the last second.
“For a moment, I thought we should play more conservatively in the final stretch, but I also wanted us to score another goal,” the coach said. “That is why I put Caique in the game, but we ended up with a draw. I admit I made a mistake with the substitution.”
Jo insisted, however, he will not change his approach. When asked what he’d do in a similar situation in the future, Jo said with a grin, “I will just play an offensive-minded defender. I will not think about making any conservative change.”
In this match, Ulsan striker Kim Shin-wook had his goal scoring streak snapped at four games. He’d scored in each of the first two games of the K League Classic season and the first two games in the AFC tournament.
He had four excellent opportunities, including two chances within a minute late in the match, but Guizhou goalkeeper Zhang Lie stood his ground each time to frustrate the South Korean.
Ulsan will have a rematch against Guizhou in China on April 1.
In Hiroshima, Tsukasa Shiotani netted the winner for the home club in the 78th minute. Yojiro Takahagi put Hiroshima on board in the 52nd minute, and FC Seoul’s substitute Rafael Costa scored the equalizer eight minutes later before Shiotani’s decisive goal.
Having suffered its first loss of 2014, FC Seoul will try to bounce back against the same Hiroshima club at home on April 1.
On Tuesday against Shandong, Pohang went down a man just 12 minutes in, as defensive back Shin Kwang-hoon was sent off for a deliberate handball.
Vagner Love converted the ensuing penalty to give the visitors an early lead. The striker was successful on another penalty 11 minutes later, as Pohang’s Kim Jae-sung handled a Shandong cross in his own penalty area.
Pohang’s captain Kim Tae-soo cut the deficit in half just past the half-hour mark, and then Kim Seung-dae scored the equalizer in the 77th on a pretty feed by Ryu Chang-hyun.
Pohang is trying to advance to the knockout phase after getting eliminated from the group stage the past two seasons. It will have a rematch against Shandong on the road on April 2.
Also on Tuesday, Jeonbuk came out on the wrong side of a controversial call against Guangzhou.
Down 2-1, Jeonbuk appeared to draw even in the 58th minute on Jung In-hwan’s header, but the referee Abdullah Al Hilali disallowed the goal on the grounds that Jung charged the goalkeeper Zeng Cheng. Replays showed Jung came in contact with the Chinese keeper after he had headed in the ball.
Just three minutes later, Guangzhou dashed Jeonbuk’s hope for a comeback, as Liao Lisheng’s header sealed the deal for the home side.
Jeonbuk head coach Choi Kang-hee said the referee had clearly blown the call on what should have been his team’s second goal.
“There was absolutely no reason for that goal to be called back,” Choi said at the post-match press conference. “If the goal had stood, we would have had the momentum, and the game could’ve gone either way. But the tide turned against us after the decision, and we came out on the losing end.”
Asked whether he felt Guangzhou enjoyed a home field advantage in the contest, Choi said, “It’s not for me to answer. You should ask the referee.”
Jeonbuk will have a chance for revenge against Guangzhou at home on April 2. (Yonhap)