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playoffs

Playoff Preview: Busan IPark vs. Asan Mugunghwa


Wednesday night saw police team Asan Mugunghwa see off fallen giants FC Seongnam 1-0 in the first round of the 2017 K League play-offs. Victory sees Asan through to face K League Challenge runners-up Busan IPark this Saturday, with the victors set to book a place in the promotion-relegation play-off final against whichever team finishes second bottom in the Classic after Saturday's results. With both sides desperate to be playing first division football next year, there's a huge amount at stake.
(image via busanipark.com)
Overview

Busan IPark were one of the biggest teams in Korea through the eighties and nineties, winning four league titles and an Asian Champions League trophy. Since the turn of the century, however, they had been treading water for years, until in 2015 they were eventually relegated from the K League Classic. Victims of the promotion-relegation play-off, they lost over two legs to Suwon FC and surrendered their top-flight status for the first time in their history.

Last season, Busan sneaked into the play-offs because of Asan's ineligibility for promotion (due to the team's change of location and team name). However, they fell meekly to Gangwon at the first hurdle and missed the chance to bounce straight back into the Classic at the first time of asking. Since their relegation, the owners have invested heavily to try and get Busan back to where they once were, bringing in several proven Classic performers while also keeping hold of long-serving talents Lee Jung-hyub, Lim Sang-hyub, and Jung Seok-hwa. After a consistent season in which they held onto second place for almost the whole year, Busan now have a real chance for a landmark season, just weeks after the tragic passing of manager Cho Jin-ho. With promotion a real possibility and an FA Cup final with Ulsan on the horizon, this could be a pivotal period in the club's history.

Asan, meanwhile, have enjoyed another solid season. Last year, under the guise of Ansan Mugunghwa, they won the K League Challenge title with a final day win over Anyang, only to be denied promotion on a technicality. As a military team, they have dealt with relatively frequent squad revamps remarkably well, and a strong finish to this year saw them finish in third place. With big name players like FC Seoul's Lee Myung-joo and Ju Se-jong, and Daejeon's rising star Hwang In-beom already enlisted to join the team next year, there will be a number of neutrals rooting for the soldiers to push on through to the top division.

Previous Meetings

These two sides met only three weeks ago, when Asan travelled to Busan to play out a low-quality 1-1 draw. While Asan still needed a result to be sure of their play-off place, the game was dead rubber for the home side, with their second place position already assured a long time previously. Busan played a second-string side and created very little, but took the lead through Romulo's header. Lee Jae-ahn's second half penalty ensured that Asan held onto third place in the table, giving them the crucial home advantage against Seongnam in the first play-off game. Having navigated past the disappointing Magpies, Asan are back on the road to the Gudeok Stadium.

In total, Busan have drawn twice and won twice against the military team this year, although Asan will draw some hope from the fact that the two draws came at the Gudeok. Because Busan finished higher in the table, however, Asan will need to outscore Busan this time around.

Who To Watch

Busan IPark striker and talisman Lee Jung-hyub, often maligned by supporters of the national team, will take heart from playing a part in Korea's surprise 2-1 victory over Colombia last weekend. Lee replaced Lee Keun-ho at half-time as the Taeguk Warriors held out for their best result and performance in months. Unfortunately Lee Jung-hyub's most noteworthy contribution was a yellow card for a poor tackle, but the involvement will do nothing to hurt his confidence. His crucial FA Cup goal against Suwon Bluewings last month was his tenth goal of the season (a career best) and he'll be gunning for another opportunity to prove himself in the first division next season.

Versatile attacking midfielder Han Eui-gwon is the in-form man for Asan Mugunghwa and one that a few Classic sides may well be keeping an eye on next year. At 23 years old, Han already has first division experience with both Daejeon and Gyeongnam, and he's contributed seven goals for Asan since breaking into the team in the summer. Danger man.

Prediction

Momentum is often cited as being the key factor for promotion from the Challenge, and Asan may just have the edge over Busan in this regard. It's been three and a half weeks since Busan's FA Cup semi-final victory over Suwon Bluewings, and their first team haven't seen any playing time since. While fresh legs may be an advantage, Asan will be on a high from their win over Seongnam and may be the more mentally prepared. However, Asan have failed to beat Busan in their four meetings this year, and I suspect that the home team just have that bit more quality in the ranks.

Busan IPark 1-0 Asan Mugunghwa

Playoff Dates: here

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