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2017 Season Review: Busan IPark

A season of great football and high hopes ended in disappointment for Busan IPark after they lost both the play-off final and the FA Cup final in the space of a week. Here I take a look back at a year that will ultimately be remembered for the tragic passing of coach Cho Jin-ho.
(image via Busanipark.com)

What Went Well

There was a lot of good this year. After a disappointing first year in the Challenge, Cho Jin-ho came in over the winter and really moved things in the right direction. Last year Busan were far too conservative and dull to watch under the guidance of Choi Young-jun. This year it was completely different: Busan had a more fluid attack, a tighter defence, and they were far easier on the eye. Busan only lost six league games all year, and three of those were against title winners Gyeongnam. They held onto second spot for almost the entire season, and finished a staggering fourteen points ahead of third place Asan Mugunghwa. If it weren't for the brilliance of Gyeongnam, Busan would have run away with the league.

In the FA Cup, too, the team impressed. On their way to the final with Ulsan Hyundai they surprised many by knocking out four Classic teams: Pohang Steelers, FC Seoul, Jeonnam Dragons and Suwon Bluewings, showing along the way that the gap between Korea's top two divisions is more of a hop than a chasm. In the final week of the season Busan still had the possibility of promotion, silverware, and qualification for the Champions League, and they deserve praise for their achievements. Unfortunately, the season didn't finish as fans would have hoped…

What Didn't Go Well

Over the course of the league season Busan were very consistent, but they were reminded every few months that Gyeongnam were far more deserving of automatic promotion. Spearheaded by the impressive Brazilian Marcao, Gyeongnam were generally sharper and more dangerous in the meetings between the two teams. The final encounter in Changwon perhaps encapsulated the difference between the two; in an even game of shared chances, it was Marcao, clinical as always, who took his chances and all but confirmed the title for his team, while Busan essentially lacked a cutting edge in front of goal. Although Lee Jung-hyup enjoyed a decent season after a poor one on loan at Ulsan last year, Busan lacked a prolific scorer in the Marcao mould who may have taken them that one step further.

To summarise the season's problems more simply, though, it might just be easier to say that Busan failed to win their two-legged promotion playoff with Sangju Sangmu, and then were beaten in the FA Cup Final by Ulsan. Although they held their own against both teams, they were guilty of a couple of uncharacteristic defensive slips and a lack of composure in front of goal. It's difficult to know exactly the extent to which Cho Jin-ho's tragic death affected those final two weeks of the season, but it should be noted that caretaker manager Lee Seung-yub did a fine job in the last month of the year and should be applauded for taking on the job at such a difficult time. After all, Busan came very close to having it all; had unfortunate forward Ko Kyung-min not skied his penalty in the decisive shoot-out in Sangju, Busan may have been looking at a very different year ahead.

Team MVP

There were a few players who enjoyed good spells over the course of the season. Lee Jung-hyup and Ko Kyung-min both had purple patches in front of goal, while midfielder Lee Jae-kwon made a big difference when he arrived in the summer and Brazilian Romulo also finished the season very well. The most consistent performer for me, though, was another Brazilian: centre back Danny Morais. The veteran was signed from Santa Cruz last winter and made an immediate impression on the team; he was even named as club captain for one of the year's early fixtures against Anyang. He showed composure, physicality and an excellent reading of the game, often looking a level above the players around him. In a year full of rotation, Morais was one of the first names on the team sheet and was a big part of the joint-meanest defence in the league. Busan would do well to keep him for another year.

Kim Moon-hwan is also worth a mention here as my vote for young player of the year. The rookie played almost every game this season in a variety of positions from full-back to wing-forward, and was a reliable and at times exciting talent. Although his end product was sometimes lacking, he had a great engine and did very well defensively for a player who came in as a forward. Recently included in the Korea Under-23 squad, he's one to watch for the future.

Most Disappointing Player

One player who fans expected more of was Park Jun-tae. Coming off a Classic season in which he scored eight goals for Sangju, Park was immediately appointed captain after rejoining coach Cho Jin-ho. In the end, though, Park failed to cement a regular spot in the team and only completed the full ninety minutes five times.

He's pipped to the award, though, by Lukian. Signed from Bucheon, where he scored fifteen goals in 2015, the Brazilian only managed six starts and two goals for Busan before being shipped off to Anyang for the rest of the year. Given that Busan lacked a prolific goalscorer in their chase for promotion, it's a shame that Lukian didn't appear to fit the system that Cho Jin-ho had in mind. With a lone striker supported by wingers usually the preferred option, Lee Jung-hyup thrived early in the year while Lukian struggled to make any impact. His time with Busan is possibly best summed up by the FA Cup win over Gimpo Citizen in March. While his fellow fringe teammates were queuing up for goals (in an eventual 4-0 win) Lukian somehow conspired to pass two appallingly weak penalties into the goalkeeper's arms in the space of a few minutes.

Most Important Decision of the Off-season

Perhaps the biggest decision is one that has just been made. Former Gangwon manager Choi Yun-kyum has been named as Cho Jin-ho's successor after leaving his previous post in August. With a talented squad at his disposal at Gangwon, Choi will have been disappointed not to have made more of a challenge to the top five in the Classic. He returns now to the Challenge only a year after leading Gangwon to promotion. That experience will surely come in useful next year.

Now attention can turn to the squad itself, and it's difficult to predict exactly how much rebuilding the team might need. After a largely successful year, the current squad would seemingly only need a few nips and tucks to take that extra step up. The problem might be that the likes of Lee Jung-hyup, Lim Sang-hyup, Jung Seok-hwa and Han Ji-ho may well receive more attractive propositions from teams in the league above. How many of their key players Busan can persuade to stay may be just as important as anyone they decide to bring in. After coming so close to promotion and even a place in the Champions League, it would be a mighty shame if the current team disbanded and had to start all over again.

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