That tenacious team, aptly known as the Pohang Steelers, has been doing the chasing for much of 2011. The green shirts of Jeonbuk Motors have led the pack for months, like a pace-setting marathon runner that never lets up.
The race is almost over and Pohang doesn’t look like it’s catching its prey but it has been a sterling effort. A last-minute goal from Ulsan Horang-I on Sunday ended the Steelers’ run of five straight wins. That leaves Jeonbuk six points clear with two games in the regular season remaining. The Motors are moving out of sight. Now it is all about the playoffs.
Coach Hwang Sun-hong admitted this after the 2-1 defeat at rivals Ulsan.
“We didn’t play badly and tried our best,” said Hwang, who is often easier on his players in defeat than he is when they win. “It is now extremely difficult for us to finish in first place. What we have to do now is to make sure that we confirm second place in the two games that we have left.”
The team needs a point to be certain, and that is well within its powers. If it does so, then it not only confirms a 2012 Asian Champions League spot but will hand the team a neat advantage heading into the playoff series.
It works like this. The teams that finish from third to sixth in the league fight it out between themselves over the course of three games to decide which one goes through. The winner will travel to the Steelyard for a one-off game against Pohang. The winner of that will take on the regular season winners in a two-leg final played at home and away.
Pohang is used to big matches. It is, after all, the most successful club in Asian history with three continental crowns to its name, and it has looked well-balanced almost from the start of the season. Three minutes had gone on the opening day when new signing Derek Asamoah laid on a fantastic opportunity for Mota to score. It was a goal scored by Brazil and made in Ghana.
Those two have given defenders problems all season, helped by a lively Korean spine to the team. The likes of Kim Jae-sung and Hwang Jin-sung in midfield are well-known as solid players by K-League fans, if unlikely to get mobbed on the street.
Kim Hyung-il and Shin Hyung-min are others that have made fleeting appearances for the national team before returning to focus on club duty. In attack, young striker Koh Moo-yeol has scored eight goals in just 17 starts in his first professional season and looks to be a real find.
Assuming Pohang gets the point it needs to confirm second spot, it will be watching the battle between third, fourth, fifth and sixth with interest. Suwon Bluewings and FC Seoul will be third and fourth though it remains to be seen who will play who as the two rivals are currently level on points.
Four teams are in the race for the other two places. Busan I’Park currently lies in fifth, a point and place ahead of Ulsan Horangi. The two meet on Saturday. A win for Busan, at home, will guarantee its spot in playoffs.
Chunnam Dragons are in seventh, a point behind Ulsan and two ahead of Gyeongnam FC in eighth. Gyeongnam has to win its two remaining games and hope that others slip up. Chunnam will go back into the top six with a win next weekend, as either Ulsan or Busan, or both, will drop points.
The problem for Chunnam is that its next trip is to Pohang. That should be quite a game.
By John Duerden, Contributing writer