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Column: Three Successive Defeats Won't Mar Daejeon's Season

Heading into the last two games of the season, the Purples do so on the back of three successive defeats but, needing just a point to secure a playoff spot, Daejeon's destiny is in their own hands. However, regardless of the outcome and indeed the last three matches, 2018 will be looked back upon as a success for Daejeon Citizen.
(Image via K League)
Heading into the last few weeks of the season and the Purples sit with relative comfort in the top four, needing just a point from their last two matches for a guaranteed playoff berth. A run of 12 games unbeaten that began in August and ran right through until mid-October saw Daejeon rocket up the table and into third place, eventually falling back to fourth after the defeat to Busan in round 32.

On Saturday, Daejeon lost away to Seongnam by two-goals-to-nil, their third defeat on the bounce. The Magpies thought they were a goal-to-the-good in the first 45 minutes when Seo Bomin's corner went straight in but the goal was chalked off by VAR following what was adjudged as a foul on Daejeon goalkeeper Park Juwon.

The two teams went in level at the break but it didn't take long before the deadlock was broken after the restart. Moon Sangyun went through the Purples back four with ease before coolly finding the bottom corner in the 47th minute with a wonderfully taken solo effort.

Just 10 minutes later and Seongnam were two-nil up, this time through Kim Minhyeok. The former Pohang midfielder rose above Purples full-back Hwang Jaehoon to nod in Seo Bomin's cross. Had Citizen have picked up a point, Ko Jongsoo and his team would have headed into the last two games of the season knowing that a playoff spot was already guaranteed. Alas, it was Seongnam who ensured that automatic promotion was still in sight, should second be enough for an quick return to K League 1.

Whilst losing three games in a quick succession might take the shine off Daejeon's bright season, especially after such a good run of form beforehand, the fact that the Purples are seemingly set for a venture into the K League 2 playoffs is testament to how far the 1997-founded club have come this term.

Consequently, whatever happens for the Purples, promotion or not, the 2018 season can be considered as a successful one. Compared to last year, the Club’s 20th anniversary, when the team finished rock bottom after winning just six times all year, even the finest incremental progress would have been a step in the right direction.

Finishing above bottom of the league would have signs that the new regime, as polarising as it has been with the Purple Arena faithful, is taking the club in the right direction. With a fledgling manager in Ko Jongsoo and a huge squad of players - close to 60 players were allocated squad numbers - many did not expect much from the Purples this term. Progression? Yes. Playoffs? Certainly Not.

Daejeon finished bottom of K League Challenge (K League 2) in 2017 (image via K League)
The playoffs are a lottery, it is a cliche to say as much, but that that’s just the nature of knockout football. And so, whether Daejeon do go all the way or not won’t mar what Ko Jongsoo and his team have achieved this season, much like the last three games won't either. His brand of attacking football warrants larger crowds at Purples Arena, and indeed more plaudits from the media. As the former Suwon Bluewings and Daejeon Citizen midfielder was in his playing days, he’s just as bold as a manager.

Ko Jongsoo has taken to management well, despite the sticky start which saw Daejeon lose their first two games and win just once in their first five this season. But, since then, Daejeon have lost just 10 times in 27 matches. He’s calm on the touch line, in fact he is usually propping himself up against the frame of the dugout whilst coach Lee Kibeom barks orders from the technical area.

But, his tracksuit manager appearance suggests that he isn’t just a manager who delegates. His players seem highly motivated, their willingness to keep going right up to the 90th minute and beyond is testament to that. You can sense a team spirit there at Daejeon too, something that ought to be hard to build with a squad so vast, but you can witness it when the Purples take to the field. They fight for each other and are just as happy when others score as when they do. It’s a collective and, if Daejeon go up, this team spirit and never-say-die attitude will be why and for that credit must go to Ko Jongsoo.

Last year Daejeon were mentally weak, they lacked leadership on and off the field. That was all too apparent in how many late goals they shipped, even at home. Although there was a slight hangover at the start of the campaign, since the summer it has been the Purples who are the ones scoring late winners and equalisers instead of conceding them.

Daejeon are a second half team, they score most of their goals in the last fifteen minutes of games - that’s a sign that the players are fitter than their opponents, for one, and also that they are hungry for success. In 2018, 31% of Daejeon’s goals have come in the last 15 minutes (13), 47% in the last 30 minutes (20) and only 30% in entirety of the first half of matches (13). From winning or drawing positions, Daejeon threw away 17 points in 2017. In 2018 Daejeon have earned 12 extra points by coming from behind to either draw or win, 10 of those points have come thanks to goals scored in the last 10 minutes of matches.

Recruiting young and hungry players who have have a point to prove has been a factor in Daejeon's success this term. A number of young players joined over the winter, such as centre back Ko Myeongseok, 23, who has made the most appearances out of anyone in the Daejeon team with 31. Ko, a ball-playing centre half, is among the top 10 in the division for passes completed, is second in terms of interceptions made (53) as well as with the number of clearances (205). Striker Park Inhyeok, and midfielder-turned full-back Park Sooil, both 22, are third and fourth having made 30 and 28 appearances respectively.

Central defender Ko Myeongseok after the home win over Ansan Greeners (C) (image via K League)
Park Inhyeok joined from Hoffenheim during the winter after loan spells with FSV Frankfurt in South West Regional League, Germany’s fourth tier, FC Koper from the Slovenian third tier, and FK Vojvodina of the Serbian Super League. Park has six goals to his name this term having largely operated from the right hand-side of Daejeon’s front three. He has had the third-highest number of shots in K League 2 with 65, 38 of which were on target - the second highest behind Bucheon’s Willian Popp.

Park Sooil is K League 2’s joint-top assist maker with eight and is eighth overall in terms of the number of key passes made with 36 and is proving to be a shrewd signing for the Purples having made the step up from the National League with Gimhae City.

Honourable mentions must also be given Kang Yunsung and the returning Hwang Inbeom but also to the seasoned professionals who have been there to guide the younger players. FA Cup-winning goalkeeper Park Junhyeok who, since joining in August, has five kept cleansheets in 15 games, Ahn Sanghyeon who has made 40 interceptions, placing him in the top 10 overall in K League 2, have both been influential.

Daejeon’s foreign contingent have also proven to be just as important, Romanian striker Aurelian Chițu and Uzbek international midfielder Shohruh Gadoev especially. Chițu is Daejeon’s top scorer with 10 and also has four assist to his name this term. Gadoev isn’t fair behind with eight goals.

Citizen will see out the season with two home fixtures, first to Bucheon on Saturday 3rd November and then to FC Anyang on Sunday 11th. Although the last three games will have irked manager Ko Jongsoo, they will also have served as a wake up call. His team now need to find form before the playoffs begin and, with two winnable fixtures for the Purples, his players will be itching to set the record straight. But, regardless of whether Daejeon make a long-awaited return to K League 1, a place in the top four ought to be commended.

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