Suwon Bluewings pipped FC Seoul to first place in the regular season last month, and they confirmed their narrow supremacy over their arch-rivals to lift their first K-League title since 2004. A 2-1 victory at home secured Cha Bum-Kun's team a 3-2 aggregate win in the play-off final, Song Chong-Gug striking a match-winning penalty in the 36th minute after Seoul striker Jung Jo-Gook cancelled out Edu's early opener.
It was Suwon's fourth title since they joined the league in 1996, and the second for coach Cha Bum-Kun, who lifted the trophy in his first season in charge. "I didn't feel as happy as this when I first won the league in 2004 because I wasn't able to do as I wanted as a new coach," recalled an upbeat Cha. "I'm out of my mind with delight now and I want to praise my players who have proved themselves true champions.
Suwon had been mightily impressive during the first half of the 26-round regular season, winning 11 games in a row. However, three straight defeats in September cost them their place at the summit, and a 1-0 loss at home to Seoul sent them into the penultimate matchday with their hopes of finishing top - and, crucially, banking the automatic berth in the play-off final - in the balance. The Bluewings rebounded in champions' fashion, though, to claim first place and leave themselves one step away from lifting the trophy.
Seoul provided Suwon's final obstacle. Goal difference is all that separated the two sides in the regular season, one during which Senol Gunes's side also excelled. They went 19 matches unbeaten, and the lost only twice: once in the Seoul-Suwon derby and finally in their penultimate outing against Busan I'Park. After beating Ulsan Horang-i in their play-off semi-final, Seoul were again undone by the Bluewings.
"We could have won the title had we not drawn the first leg," lamented Gunes, who assumed the reins last year. "We've done so many things so far, and especially the youngsters played important roles when called upon. I can only regret they could have been rewarded with more confidence and experience otherwise."
That said, the team from the capital city - and the ‘football capital', as Suwon fans claim - can take consolation from a place alongside their conquerors in next season's AFC Champions League; something they earned by finishing second in the regular season.
Ulsan into Asian finals
Joining them in the continental finals are Ulsan Horang-i, who defeated Jeonbuk Motors 1-0 last month to reach the play-off semi-final. In a repeat of their last-four meeting in the Champions League 2006, when Jeonbuk came from behind to beat Ulsan and went on to win the trophy, former Motors winger Yeom Ki-Hun headed home the only goal in the 20th minute. Although a 4-2 loss to Seoul denied the Tigers a place in the K-League decider, they will be relishing their second Champions League adventure in three years.
Seongnam Chunma fell at the first hurdle in the play-offs, losing 2-1 at home to Jeonbuk, while Pohang Steelers were eliminated when Ulsan beat them on penalties.
The fourth and last ticket to the Champions League 2009 will be awarded to the winners of the Korean Cup later this month. The Gyeongnam-Goyang and Daegu-Pohang Steelers semi-finals will be held in Jeju next week.
K-League play-off results
Ulsan Horang-i 0-0 Pohang Steelers aet (Ulsan win 4-2 on penalties)
Seongnam Chunma 1-2 Jeonbuk Motors
Ulsan Horang-i 1-0 Jeonbuk Motors
FC Seoul 4-2 Ulsan Horang-i aet
FC Seoul 1-1 Suwon Bluewings
Suwon Bluewings 2-1 FC Seoul (Suwon win 3-2 on aggregate)