Korean likely in starting lineup for Champions League final
Park Ji-sung is known for never stopping on the pitch, his quick moves have earned him the nickname “Three Lung Park” in England. He is also proving to have an unquenchable thirst for collecting medals and trophies with Manchester United. The UEFA Champions League trophy, the biggest prize in club soccer is on offer on Saturday evening (3:45 a.m. Sunday, Korean time) at London’s Wembley Stadium against Barcelona.
On Sunday he lifted the English Premier League trophy for a fourth time. It was a 19th domestic title for the club which officially makes it the most successful ever in the history of the league ahead of long-time leaders Liverpool. United’s rival still clings to the fact that it has won five European titles to Manchester’s three. That gap may close this weekend and Park is set to have a big say in whether it does or not.
It would end a fantastic 12 months for the player. He spent last summer leading South Korea to the second round of the 2010 World Cup, the team’s best ever performance on the global stage at an overseas location. Six months later, he retired from the national team after exiting the 2011 Asian Cup at the semifinal stage.
Park, 30, picked up an injury during that continental competition that reinforced his decision to retire from the international game in order to focus on prolonging his club career. Since returning to action at the beginning of April he has perhaps shown his best form since joining the club in 2005, earning plaudits left, right and center.
Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung (left) lifted the English Premier League trophy for the fourth time last weekend. (AFP-Yonhap News)
There has been big game after big game in the last few weeks but there is none bigger in club soccer than the game in London. Nicky Butt was part of the Manchester United team from 1992 to 2004 and won the European trophy in 1999, defeating Bayern Munich in Barcelona. He is a fan of the Korean and thinks that he will have a crucial part to play against the Spanish club. United and Park want revenge after losing 2-0 to the Spanish giants in the 2009 final in Rome.
“Park has had a phenomenal season,” said Butt. “He had that injury after coming back from the Asian Cup but since then he has been outstanding. His athleticism is amazing. He can break up play and gives the simple passes. But he also has the energy to get forward and scores the odd important goal.
“He is one of those players that are so difficult to play against because he is non-stop. Clearly they have outstanding players of their own, but Barcelona will not like playing against Park.”
Park and the rest of his teammates did not like playing against the likes of Messi, Iniesta and Xavi two years ago but at least Park played. A year earlier, United won the trophy, defeating Chelsea in Moscow and the Korean, who had been a key player in the tournament, was left out of the team and the entire roster for the big match. Coach Alex Ferguson called it the most difficult decision of his long career.
One theory is that Park’s complete commitment to the cause made Ferguson’s choice a little easier. “Easier than dropping an English player?” Park replied this week when asked if that was the case. “Maybe possible. Nobody knows that but it doesn’t matter. He made his decision, he explained why, and our culture is to follow the manager.
“At that moment I was thinking it was not fair; I am human. When I heard it I was thinking ‘Wow, I can’t believe. Why me?’ But I couldn’t say anything, I would just upset everyone. After that I started blaming myself. The day after the match I was thinking of the future: ‘If you want to play in the final you have to improve yourself.’”
He has. Park’s form of late means that he is almost a certain starter on Saturday. When he was left out of the roster three years ago, the whole of Korea was amazed and not a little upset. If such a thing were to happen again, fans around the world would be united in their surprise and indignation. It is unlikely.
There were reports earlier in the season that Park could be on his way out of Manchester this summer but his performances mean that such an exit is unlikely. Whatever the long-term situation, Park has just one thought on his mind this week.
“For the moment I am focused on the Champions League final,” he said. “I can think after that on my contract or my future. Man United is an important club and I am happy if I’m seen as an important part of the club. In football anything can happen, but I’ve been here six years and I like this club, and then my future is to decide.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (email@example.com