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Park Ji-sung sets sights on final

It is becoming almost commonplace but fans in South Korea shouldn’t take it for granted. Park Ji-sung is currently playing in his fourth set of UEFA Champions League semifinals. His two successes should become three with Wednesday’s second leg (3:45 a.m. Thursday Korean time) between Manchester United and Schalke 04 of Germany.

The English Premier League team won the first leg 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen last Tuesday in a last-four matchup that was as one-sided as any played in recent years. The result flattered the host, not the visitor, and it will be one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history if Schalke can recover in Manchester to eliminate the three-time champion and book its place in the final in London on May 28.

Park played the first 73 minutes in Germany before being withdrawn in order to rest for other tests. The big games are coming thick and fast. On Sunday, Park was in action in the English Premier League as the club faced rivals Arsenal though the London team won 1-0. Despite that setback, the English title is still very likely, and will be virtually sealed on Sunday if Chelsea can be defeated at home. That would be Park’s fourth since joining the club in 2005.
Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung (AFP-Yonhap News)
Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung (AFP-Yonhap News)

His medals are a powerful argument against those who said that the move to Manchester wasn’t in his best interests. On his transfer from PSV Eindhoven, the coach at the time, Guus Hiddink, advised him to stay in the Netherlands for a while longer before heading to London club Chelsea. “When I made my mind up for Manchester I felt that I had betrayed Hiddink,” Park said. “I knew that Hiddink wanted me to stay, so I found it difficult.”

It is not only the medals, this is a player increasingly appreciated by fans, media and teammates. Park has overcome the doubters who felt that he had been signed by the giant English club in order to help it sell shirts and do deals in Asia. The player, 30, has actually done so but only because he has been such a success on the pitch. He hasn’t always been a regular starter for the club but when the big games come around, and for a team like Manchester United, there are lots of big games, his name can usually be found on the team sheet.

“He’s got the discipline, intelligence and football knowledge you need in the biggest games,” said his coach Alex Ferguson last week. “Discipline is so much more important in the Champions League, and you need a slightly different type of discipline in Europe … there are some players you can normally rely on to keep a cool head and Park Ji-sung is one of them.

“When you pick teams for big games you need a core of discipline and he’s one of the players who can give you that. And he’s a fantastic professional. He moves and plays and moves again. That’s the asset he’s got. He doesn’t watch what other players are doing with the ball; he gets himself into another position so he can be involved again. That’s his value to us; he can be really important.”

Park has played more Champions League games than any other Asian player though there is one thing missing. He was a vital member of the team that won the 2008 edition. He played in all 360 minutes of the quarter and semi finals that year against Roma and Barcelona. Despite that, when the final against Chelsea in Moscow came around, Park wasn’t picked and wasn’t even part of the roster that day. He watched dressed in a suit as his teammates squeezed past their rival.

In 2009, he became the first Asian player to start the final against Barcelona but on that night, the Spanish team was too good for its English equivalent and ran out as 2-0 winners. A reunion in London looks likely as Barcelona also won the first leg of its semifinal 2-0. It would be a final to savor and another chance for Park to play in the biggest club game in world soccer.

“I wouldn’t like to be without him,” Ferguson said. “He is one of our most effective players and has been for a long time.”

There are an increasing number of people around the world who would agree.

By John Duerden, Contributing writer  (johnduerden@hotmail.com)
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