The South Korean K-League kicks off its 26th season on Saturday, with reigning champions Pohang Steelers taking on cup holders Chunnam Dragons. The two teams are renewing acquaintances for the first time since locking horns in last season's two-legged cup final, when the Dragons emerged triumphant with back-to-back wins over their southeastern rivals.
The Steelers, however, are keen to prove that winning the championship after finishing fifth in the regular season was no fluke. Brazilian coach Sergio Farias, who masterminded Pohang's fairytale run in the play-offs, outlined their ambitions: "Our aim is to reach the final and win it like we did last year. We're preparing for the new season, in which we're hoping to play more organised football with a balance between attack, midfield, and defence."
That said, Farias will be banking on the scoring prowess of his compatriots: Denilson and Aldo. The Brazilian duo arrived during the winter from Daejeon Citizen and Brazilian side Paulista FC respectively, are expected to lead the frontline, while midfielder Fabiano was recruited from Marilia Atletico Clube to fill the gap left by Tavares, last season's Most Valuable Player.
For their part, Chunnam are eager to shrug off the unwanted tag of 'tournament team', with three FA Cup victories the only major achievements of their 13-year history. Park Hang-Seo, the Dragons' new coach, has set a realistic target of reaching the six-team play-offs, but for the time being he will be without three key players - goalkeeper Yeom Dong-Gyun, midfielder Kim Chi-Woo, and striker Ko Ki-Gu - who were injured while on international duty last month.
Top trio aim to atone
On Sunday, it is the turn of a trio from the midwest, who have dominated the league in recent years, to begin their campaigns, and all will have redemption as their target.
Perennial champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma lost the final against Pohang after finishing first last season, and their coach Kim Hak-Bum is hungry for success more than ever. "Every coach says their goal is to win the championship but I think it's a cliché," Kim said. "Scoring most goals and conceding least goals in the league are my priorities. The more goals we score, the more fans we will see in the stadium. And by conceding fewer goals, we'll be able to stabilise and stay on top of the table."
In fact, the former was already achieved last year with the Pegasus scoring no less than 43 goals in 26 games. But it was their neighbours FC Seoul who had the league's meanest defence with 16 goals.
Yet despite that miserly record, which was thanks largely to the consistent performance of veteran goalkeeper Kim Byung-Ji, Seoul narrowly missed out a place in the play-offs due to a lack of firepower. Attempting to address this, coach Senol Gunes has brought in Serbian forward Dejan Damjanovic from Incheon United to partner Park Chu-Young.
Last season's runners-up, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, did not spend big during the close season to bolster their already formidable squad. However, coach Cha Bum-Kun had no choice but to trade star forward Ahn Jung-Hwan for Korea DPR midfielder An Yong-Hak with Busan I'Park, this following Korea Republic captain Kim Nam-Il's departure to Japanese outfit Vissel Kobe.
On the south coast, meanwhile, the managerial merry-go-round has been in full swing. Busan I'Park, for example, moved to appoint former South Korean international striker Hwang Sun-Hong as coach. The 39-year-old is set to make his debut in the dugout against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Sunday at Busan Asiad Stadium, where he opened the scoring in Korea Republic's 2-0 win over Poland at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.
As for Gyeongnam FC, although they lost their attacking duo of Cabore and Popo, who left for J.League sides Tokyo FC and Kashiwa Reysol respectively, there was some cheer when former FC Seoul boss Cho Kwang-Rae returned to take the reins at his hometown club after an exile of three years. His predecessor, meanwhile, Park Hang-Seo, who led Gyeongnam to fourth place last year but resigned shortly afterwards, did not take long to return to the game with Gwangyang-based outfit Chunnam Dragons.
K-League Round 1 fixtures
Saturday 8 March 2008
Pohang Steelers-Chunnam Dragons
Sunday 9 March 2008
FC Seoul-Ulsan Hyundai Horangi
Suwon Samsung Bluewings-Daejeon Citizen
Gwangju Sangmu-Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma
Busan I'Park-Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Gyeongnam FC-Daegu FC
Jeju United-Incheon United