K-League's four of a kind
When the final whistle was blown at the end of the AFC Champions League Round of 16 match at Hindmarsh Stadium last week, it not only signalled the conclusion of 120 minutes of football between Adelaide United and Jeonbuk Motors but ensured a small slice of history had been created. By defeating the hosts 3-2, the Motors completed a Korea Republic quartet alongside Pohang Steelers, Seongnam Chunma and Suwon Bluewings in the quarter-finals of Asia’s premier club competition. It is the first time in the tournament that one country has four representatives at this stage, with the South Korean clubs claiming all four berths allocated to the east Asian teams.
Saudi Arabia clubs had dominated the west Asian groups last year with only Al Ittihad surviving the Round of 16 ultimately reach the final, in which the Jeddah outfit lost 2-1 to Pohang. This time around, Saudi Arabian clubs Al Hilal and Al Shabab are likely to face serious challenges again from the Far East.
Reigning continental champions Pohang have undergone a difficult period since finishing third in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup in December. All-conquering Brazilian tactician Sergio Farias left for Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia, while the prolific duo of Denilson and Stevica Ristic were acquired by Uzbek giants Bunyodkor. With new coach Valdemar Lemos struggling to find the balance at the Steelyard, Pohang began their defence of the title in a worst possible manner by losing 1-0 away to Adelaide, and then slumping to an unprecedented winless streak across eight domestic league games.
Despite the subsequent sacking of Lemos just two days before the Round of 16 encounter against Kashima Antlers, the three-time Asian champions showed their true mettle by snatching a solid 1-0 victory against the Japanese champions last week. Former Seongnam marksman Mota scored the only goal of the game, while Korea Republic midfielders Kim Jae-Sung and Shin Hyung-Min showed outstanding form against the J.League big guns.
By comparison, Seongnam have been the most impressive performers among the Korean quartet so far, winning four straight matches to top their group with two games to spare. In only his second season with the club Mauricio Molina emerged as a key player with deadly free-kicks and defence unlocking passes from his left foot, and it was the Colombian midfielder who scored twice to lead his side to a 3-0 win over 2008 Asian champions Gamba Osaka in the last 16.
However, Seongnam have failed to translate their regional dominance to the continental front over the past decade. The seven-time K-League champions lifted the coveted trophy in 1995 on the back of three straight domestic victories, but the revamped Champions League has remained elusive. Seongnam lost the final to Al Ittihad in 2004 before going down in the semi-finals after a penalty shootout against 2007 champions Urawa Red Diamonds.
It was Jeonbuk that marked the beginning of east Asian dominance and the return of Korean clubs in the continental championship. The Motors twice came from behind to beat Shanghai Shenhua and Ulsan Horangi en route to the 2006 final, where they defeated Al Karama of Syria 3-2 on aggregate.
Four years on, the Korean champions are not only regarded as the ‘comeback kings’ but are the most prolific club in Asia, scoring no fewer than 17 goals in the group stage. With last season’s fabulous trio of Lee Dong-Gook, Eninho and Choi Tae-Uk still looking dangerous, Croatian forward Kruno Lovrek scored a hat-trick on his Jeonbuk debut in February before Sim Woo-Yeon repeated the feat in an 8-0 rout of Persipura Jayapura last month.
Suwon also have their own prolific striker in the shape of Jose Mota, who netted a brace in a 2-0 win over Beijing Guoan in the first knockout round to take his tally to nine goals this season. With the Bluewings struggling on the bottom of the K-League after seven defeats in eight domestic games, coach and legendary player Cha Bum-Kun threatened his possible resignation. But after the morale-boosting victory at home last week, the Bluewings are now relishing the chance of winning their third Asian title since their back-to-back success in 2001 and 2002.