And so it is that after the perils of Pohang, the torment of the final day at Tancheon and a close season that seems to have lasted forever, Seongnam FC will begin their campaign to reclaim their spot at the top table in the K-League Classic. Regarded by many as favorites to ‘bounce back up’ they will start their Challenge campaign against most people’s other favorite, Busan, in what should be a real test for both teams and what will hopefully be a cracking match for fans and neutrals alike. The Challenge this year is shaping up to be every bit as competitive as the Classic as also alongside Seongnam and Busan we have the likes of Suwon FC, Daejeon and Gyeongnam all hoping to clinch the golden ticket to the Classic.
It was arguably the biggest shock since relegation was introduced as 7 times league winners Seongnam fell to a Heo Beom San strike back in November 2016 that would consign them to the hugely unfamiliar surroundings of the K-League Challenge for at least the 2017 season. The fact that it was only 18 months prior that Kim Do Heon’s 91st minute penalty was enough to defeat the Galacticos of Guangzhou Evergrande made the predicament all the more difficult for the fans in black to understand never mind accept. But enough reminiscing it’s almost time for “Kick-Off!”
Seongnam FC v Busan I-Park (Saturday March 4th @ 3pm)
All Challenge-eyes will fixed on Tancheon at 3pm as two former K-League Classic heavyweights clash for the first time since August 2015 in what many expect will be the main battle for the Challenge crown in 2017. Much has changed for Seongnam since that bleak day in November as a new manager in the shape of ex-Jeju favorite Park Kyung Hoon was handed the reins and ultimately the task of resurrecting the club. Gone are fans favorites Park Jin Po, Lim Chai Min (Army) and Pitu and in their place come in ex-Daegu midfielder Paulo Sergio, Australian internationalist Dario Vidosic and Croatian Marin Orsulic. The funeral-like atmosphere that surrounded Tancheon as the Gangwon faithful celebrated promotion has been turned into a generally positive and expectant vibe, one that the fans hope can see their idols storm back to the ‘big boys playground’. Seongnam also managed to keep a hold of some key players for the 2017 season and especially Kim Dong Jun and Hwang Uijo will be pivotal to any success they have. Hwang had a bit of a nightmare 2016 but in pre-season he’s looked eager to make up for lost time, he also reverted back to his “lucky” Number 16 jersey and we all know how superstitious footballers are.
In Busan though they face a team that has also been buoyed over the close season. Cho Jin Ho left his post at Sangju after an incredible top-group finish and with him he has recruited several exciting names with Bucheon FC’s Lukian being probably the standout. They have amassed a pretty strong attacking lineup with Lee Jeong-Hyeop and Lim Sang Hyub more than capable foil for the aforementioned Lukian It’s fair to say that last year Busan were pretty underwhelming and really struggled with their new surroundings but their close season dealings definitely resemble that of a team who mean business this year.
Over the years these two have gone toe-to-toe thirty-six times with Seongnam having the clear upper-hand having won eighteen of those encounters and in fact they have won four in a row all with a 1-0 scoreline. There is so much pressure and expectation on both these teams to do well this season and that might have a baring on performances over the first few weeks. Both managers are known for their swashbuckling attacking play and they both have players more than capable of turning a match on its head. On paper this has the potential to eclipse some of the more prominent K-League Classic parings of the opening weekend…..will it live up to it’s billing though?
Prediction : Home Win : Seongnam 2 – Busan 1
Also in the opening round of the Challenge we have
Ansan Greeners v Daejeon (Sat @ 3pm)
Anyang v Suwon (Sun @ 3pm)
Bucheon v E-Land (Sun @ 3pm)
Gyeongnam v Asan (Sun @ 3pm)