Lost in…Incheon

I first arrived in Korea on November 12th, 2004. I haven’t spent each of the ensuing seven-and-a-bit years in the Land of the Morning Calm, but it’s certainly true that most of that time has been here on the Korean peninsula. Within six months of arriving, I’d made a couple of visits to my local football stadium, Munhak World Cup Stadium, home of Incheon United and haven’t looked back since (Well, that’s not entirely true as I do still wake up at/stay up to all kinds of ungodly hours to watch my first footballing love, Manchester United).

2012 will be my seventh year following the Incheon United, so here’s a preview I wrote for the Outside View.

Brand new for 2012: Sungeui Arena

Where were we? How did last season finish up?

The aberration of 2005’s 1st place finish aside, Incheon’s fans have yet to become accustomed to success during the team’s eight-year K-League run. Last season started well enough and by the halfway point Incheon were in the play-offs in fifth place. However, one win in the final 18 games meant the Bluemen ended the campaign way down in 13th. Not only was this Incheon’s lowest ranking since 2004, the club’s inaugural K-League season (when they finished 12th out of 13 clubs), but also the team managed just six wins all season and could only muster a meagre 1.03 goals per game – only the league’s whipping boys Gangwon FC fared worse.

Has the squad changed significantly over the winter months?

Incheon are certainly one of the K-League’s selling clubs, and much of last season’s scoring woes could be attributed to the sale of Yoo Byung-Soo to Al-HIlal in the spring. This winter transfer window has, however, been different. A whole team of players have departed- captain Bae Hyo-Sung, the team’s four foreign imports, veteran full-back Jeon Jae-Ho, and legendary skipper Im Joong-Yong has finally been put out to rest- but it’s the quality of the additions that is for once getting people talking.

The biggest names to arrive are 2002 World Cup veterans Kim Nam-Il and Seol Ki-Hyun. Both are now the wrong side of 30, but there’s no doubt about their quality. For Kim, the move is a chance to finish his career in his hometown, while Seol can continue his late-career K-League tour that has already taken in Pohang and, more successfully, Ulsan.

On the import front, there are the obligatory Brazilians in Ivo and Ferdinando, but perhaps most exciting of all is Australian Nathan Burns. Bucking the trend for bruising Aussie centre backs, Incheon have gone for some antipodean midfield craft. Burns made two substitute appearances in Australia’s run to the 2011 Asian Cup final and will be hoping that some good form in the K-League will help him nail down a spot in the Socceroos team.

Other additions of note are two-cap Lee Kyu-Ro from FC Seoul and defender Park Tae-Min, who was part of Busan’s successful 2011 season.

Are there any players we should look out for as ones to watch this year?You are most likely see the names of Kim, Seol,and Burns on the back of jerseys at Incheon’s new Sungeui Arena, but perhaps the player to look out for will be Park Jun-Tae. Last season’s top-scorer with six goals, Park is a diminutive, pacey striker who takes a decent free-kick. Park has played a small part in Hong Myung Bo’s U23 team’s Olympic qualification campaign, but with a supply line of Seol, Burns, and Ivo, he’ll be hoping to get the goals that book his place on the plane for London. Could be the next big Incheon sale.Is the manager the right man to have at the helm of your club?

Huh Jeong-Moo should probably be Korean management royalty. After all, Huh is the only man ever to have guided his country beyond the group stages of a World Cup on foreign soil. However, last season’s poor form saw protests against the manager by some sections of the Munhak crowd.

Huh’s domestic record is decent, but his successes have mainly come in Cup competitions. So far, he has shown little in his 18-month spell in charge of Incheon to suggest the team is any closer to competing for honours in league or cup competitions than when he arrived – in fact, they have probably looked even further away.

Huh will need the fans at the new stadium to quickly get behind him and his new team. However, Incheon start with tough fixtures against Jeju and Suwon, so Huh will need his new players to bed in quickly if his team are going to get off a successful start.

New kits for 2012 (Home shirt left: Kim Nam-Il; Away shirt right: Seol Ki-Hyun)

What’s the mood among the fans?New new, new. Apart from the manager, everything is new at Incheon this season. The kits are new (or a return to the old for traditionalists), the players are new, and most of all the stadium is new. With all this newness, it’s hard for fans not to be optimistic.Huh’s sides last year could be described as functional at best and defensive at worst, resulting in a league-high 14 draws. Fans will be hoping he finds a way of getting all his attacking additions to gel and the team plays a more attacking style of football that will turn some of those draws into wins.

Come on then, how do you predict your team will do in 2012?

Looking at Incheon’s form in the second half of last season, most people would have them as relegation candidates in 2012. However, with the new stadium and Huh’s improved playing squad, Incheon surely fall into the ‘too-big-to-go-down’ category. Opening games away at Jeju and home to Suwon will be tough, but there is no reason why Incheon shouldn’t be taking points in each of their next six fixtures (Daegu, Daejeon, Gyeongnam, Gangwon, Gwangju, Sangju). If they can start well, Incheon could be looking at a top-half finish when the league splits in September.

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