The 30th anniversary season of the K League reached a dramatic finale on Sunday, as Pohang Steelers leapfrogged into first place by edging Ulsan Horangi 1-0 thanks to a last-gasp strike from Shin Youngjun.
Trailing by two points before the south-eastern derby at Munsu Stadium, the Steelers knew they needed a victory in order to snatch the trophy from the hosts, who had been significantly subdued by the suspensions of their striking duo Rafinha and Kim Shinwook. The latter, in particular, might have rued the missed opportunities during Ulsan’s 2-1 defeat at Busan in the penultimate round, which practically ended the Tigers’ hopes of win the league with a game to spare as well as Kim’s chance to become the top scorer for the first time.
Instead, FC Seoul marksman Dejan Damjanovic made history by winning the golden boot for the third time in as many seasons. The Montenegrin international opened the scoring with his 19th goal of the season against Jeonbuk Motors, who then came from behind to earn a 1-1 draw at home to remain on third place. As well as clinching the fourth and final ticket to next year’s AFC Champions League, Seoul had another reason to celebrate as Colombian midfielder Mauricio Molina topped another chart with 13 assists this season.
Meanwhile, Suwon Bluewings failed to live up to high expectations as they finished fifth and missed out on a chance to redeem themselves on the continental stage next year. The star-studded Bluewings side exited the group stage without a win, and more importantly for their loyal supporters, lost their control over archrivals Seoul losing twice in four encounters this year.
By comparison, Pohang’s success was all the more sweet because they have won the league and the Korean FA Cup double without any help from imported talent. In fact, the Steelers began the season as the only side in the Classic (first division) without foreign players, and there was no sign of reinforcement even after they were eliminated from the group stage of the Champions League in April.
However, coach Hwang Sunhong managed to take full advantage of limited resources and instil his own version of tiki-taka in the home-grown youth at the Steelyard. Hailed as Steel-taka by the local media, the attack-minded approach from the former Korea Republic striker paid dividends as Pohang finished in pole position in the first half of the season before rounding off a topsy-turvy campaign with a famous win over their local rivals.
“I don’t know what to say. It’s unbelievable and miraculous,” Hwang said after the match, probably the biggest one of his coaching career. “I’d never thought we would win the double at the start of the season. But after we won the cup, I came to think that the process is more important than the result and that worked for us in the end.”
Ups and downs
Although seven-time champions Seongnam Chunma had to spend the second half of the season in Group B, they put some lacklustre performances behind them to finish first in the relegation group. As Seongnam are currently in the process of transforming into a localised organisation run by the city following the Ilhwa Company’s decision to discontinue their business in football, they are expected join the top flight as a new club in the following season.
While the quartet to represent the K League at the 2014 AFC Champions League had been already known a couple of weeks before the final round, there were battles to avoid relegations until the final whistle.
Daejeon Citizen were relegated after a 1-1 stalemate at Gyeongnam on Wednesday, and on the same day Daegu gave up a two-goal lead to draw 2-2 with Gangwon. The Gangneung outfit claimed the 12th place with a 3-0 victory at home over Jeju United in the final round, and will face the inaugural K League Challenge (second division) winners Sangju Sangmu in a two-legged play-off this week.