Martin Adam of Ulsan Hyundai FC (2nd from L) celebrates his goal against Incheon United with teammates Kim Min-jun (L) and Park Yong-woo during a K League 1 match at Incheon Football Stadium in Incheon, some 30 kilometers west of Seoul, last Saturday, in this photo provided by the Korea Professional Football League. (Korea Professional Football League)
For the fourth consecutive season, the South Korean club football title will come down to Ulsan Hyundai FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
And the two bitter rivals will meet for one last time this season Saturday. The murky title picture could gain more clarity after the weekend, or it could get thrown into even further chaos.
The kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at Munsu Football Stadium in the southeastern city of Ulsan.
Ulsan are holding on to a five-point lead over Jeonbuk at 69-54. Third-place Pohang Steelers sit 14 points back with four matches remaining and thus cannot catch Ulsan for the top spot.
This has set the stage for yet another late season drama between Ulsan and Jeonbuk.
Jeonbuk got the better of their rivals in each of the past three years, squeezing past them in the late days to snatch the championship trophy from Ulsan’s grasp.
By breaking Ulsan’s heart for so many years, Jeonbuk also appear to have gotten into Ulsan players’ heads. Ulsan head coach Hong Myung-bo, a second-year boss who has only been a part of one of the three late-season collapses, has been speaking about his players’ need to overcome fears. This has seemed like an admission that Ulsan players are indeed afraid of Jeonbuk’s patented late charge or that they are well aware of their own issues this time of year.
Ulsan beat Jeonbuk 1-0 in their first meeting of the season in March, but Jeonbuk came back with a 3-1 win in June. They ended in a 1-1 draw in August.
The two rivals had a bit of a prelude to this weekend showdown Wednesday, as Jeonbuk edged out Ulsan 2-1 in extra time in the semifinals of the FA Cup, the largest national tournament. The chippy contest saw Ulsan forward Leonardo being sent off late in the second half for headbutting Jeonbuk defender Park Jin-seop in a heated exchange and leaving him with a nosebleed.
Elsewhere in the league, Pohang will look to solidify their grip on third place when they host Jeju United at 2 p.m. Saturday. The third-place team from the K League 1 will book a spot in the qualifying playoffs for the following season’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League. Pohang hold a six-point lead over Incheon United for that spot.
Gangwon FC, who climbed to fifth place last week, will look to take another step forward when they play Incheon United at 7 p.m. Saturday. Incheon are in fourth place, leading Gangwon by one point at 49-48.
On Sunday, the league’s bottom feeders will be in action.
Seongnam FC and Gimcheon Sangmu FC, the two worst clubs, will square off at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The 12th-place Seongnam (25 points), trailing Gimcheon by 10 points with four games to go, must win out and then get some help from other teams to avoid direct relegation to the second-tier K League 2.
Gimcheon (35 points), currently in 11th, are trying to avoid falling into a promotion-relegation playoff against a K League 2 club. The 10th- and 11th-ranked teams from the K League 1 must survive that stage to stay in the top division in 2023.
Suwon Samsung Bluewings currently occupy 10th place at 37 points, with Daegu FC just ahead of them at 38 points.
On Sunday, Suwon Samsung will host FC Seoul, while Daegu FC will bring home Suwon FC.
After 33 matches, the top six clubs were paired into “Final A” and the rest ended up in “Final B” for the split stage of the season. Teams have so far played one of five matches within their own groups that will take them to the finish line on Oct. 23. (Yonhap)