Incheon United’s ‘bodyguard’ Moon Ji-hwan had a pleasant surprise.
Incheon United (South Korea)토스카지노 defeated Hai Phong FC (Vietnam) 3-1 in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Champions League (ACL) play-offs for the 2023-24 season at the Incheon Football Stadium on 22 July at 7.30pm. The victory sees Incheon advance to the knockout stages of the ACL.
Incheon deployed a 3-5-2 formation. Mugosa and Chun Sung-hoon formed the top two, with Mpoku, Moon Ji-hwan, and Lee Myung-joo in the middle. Kang Yoon-koo and Jung Dong-yoon were selected as the two wing-backs, while Delbridge, Kim Dong-min, and Oh Ban-seok formed the back three. Finally, Kim Dong-heon donned the goalkeeping gloves.
Contrary to expectations of a dominant performance, it was not to be. In the sixth minute of the first half, Hai Phong frontman Yuri rattled the net with an out-and-out shot from inside the penalty box. Incheon levelled the scores in the 17th minute when Chun Sung-hoon scored with a header from a Mugosa cross, but there was a lot of nervousness that their progression to the knockout stages might not be easy given their first half performance.
Moon Ji-hwan was the key to Incheon’s one-goal lead. Moon stood in front of the back three and hounded the Hai Phong foreigners. He didn’t get caught up in the contest and used appropriate fouls to minimise threatening situations. He also distributed the ball well with steady passing and accurate transition passes.
The second half was no different. Ji-hwan Moon was all over the pitch in a dedicated defence that didn’t spare his body, and his ability to follow the ball to the end brought applause from the crowd. After a great performance, Moon Ji-hwan was replaced by Shin Shin-ho in the 42nd minute due to a muscle cramp.
Incheon scored two goals in extra time to sneak out the victory. In the 11th minute of the first overtime, Hernandez slotted home a perfectly executed pass from Gerso. Then, two minutes into the second half of the extra time, Gerso intercepted the ball from the Hai Phong goalkeeper and slotted it home to end the game.
After the game, we caught up with Moon Ji-hwan in the mix zone, who said, “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I want to play against J-League teams in our own colours, and I also want to play against other leagues. It would be a good story. I don’t think it’s a story to enter the ACL for the first time and go to the main round, but it’s also a story not to. We are a civic club and we represent Incheon, so we have to promote it,” he said.
He added, “I know that Saudi Arabia has good players. We want to go to the final to meet a West Asian team. Every player wants to win. Even if it’s a better player, a better team, a better league than us, I think we can do it. I think we should prepare well while having fun imagining it,” he said and had a sweet dream.
[Incheon Moon Ji-hwan’s Mixzone interview below].
Q. How did you feel about the match?
A. “It was the first time we played an Asian team in the playoffs. There was a change in the team, and there was awkwardness at the beginning, and we were not able to do what we had prepared for due to the quick concession, and we had difficulties. Today’s game made us realise that the stage is more difficult than we thought.”
Q. The early concession must have caused some anxiety.
A. “That’s right. No team in the history of the K League has ever missed the playoffs. For about five seconds, I thought, ‘Is it going to be us,’ but we still had 80 minutes left, and I told myself we could do it. If we had conceded in the 90th minute, something unbelievable could have happened, but I think it’s positive that we conceded early.”
Q. There must have been a heavy atmosphere at halftime. What advice did the manager and coaching staff give you?
A. “It was a difficult game. At halftime, the manager and coaches showed us the film and told us what was good and what wasn’t good, and I think we were able to improve in the second half and play a stable game. I think we were able to improve in the second half and play a stable game.”
Q. The foreigners in Hai Phong had a standout performance. What was it like having to defend them?
A. “No disrespect to the Hai Phong players, but there are better athletes in the K League. Today’s game was difficult because we didn’t have much information about our opponent. Once the pots are drawn and you’re in the main draw, you can learn a lot about your opponent by analysing their characteristics. The Hai Phong players are better than I thought. If I went out with the wrong idea, I think the result would have been difficult.”
Q. You were substituted in the second half. How were you feeling?
A. “I’m not prone to muscle cramps, but it was raining, so I was replaced by (Shin) Jin Ho. I don’t think it was a big problem. I was substituted because I had a cramp, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me.”
Q. What did you see from the bench after the substitution?
A. “I was shaking a lot, and I was cheering a lot. I could see a lot from the bench. It was raining really hard, but there were so many fans in the stands, in the front, back, left and right, cheering in the rain. It would have been nice for them and for us if it was over within 90 minutes. But this is our story, this is our history. It will be a good story when we wake up tomorrow morning. It rained a lot, and a lot of fans came even though it was a weekday. We’re grateful for their support and for writing a good story with us.”
Q. What does the ACL Finals mean to Moon?
A. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I want to play against a J-League team with our own colours, and I want to play against other leagues as well. I think it would be a good story. I don’t think it’s a story to enter the ACL for the first time and go to the main round, but it’s also a story not to. We are a civic club and represent Incheon, so we have to promote it.”
Q. Let’s imagine a pleasant scenario, how far do you want to go?
A. “I know Saudi Arabia has a good player. We want to go all the way to the final to meet a West Asian team. Every player wants to win. Even if it’s a better player, a better team, a better league than us, I think we can do it. We have to have fun imagining it and prepare well.”
Q. What’s the last thing you want to say?
A. “I would like to say to the fans, I didn’t realise it when I was playing, but when I came out of the game and looked around the stadium, I saw my nephew and his friends, who are five or six years old, wearing Incheon jerseys with their dad, cheering them on in the rain, and they must have had a harder time than us, but they were cheering so passionately in the stands. I am so grateful to all the fans who must have been nervous. It may be a cliché, but the fans are more than half the reason why we’ve never been relegated and created a positive story in the K League 1. Sometimes there are disappointments, sometimes there are joys, but the league, the FA Cup and the ACL are all ongoing. I hope you can enjoy this progression together.”
Photo by Park Ji-won, Interfootball, Korea Professional Football Association, Incheon United