Clustered table sets up wild home stretch in K League football

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(Yonhap)

It’s mostly a two-horse race for the South Korean club soccer title in 2020, but there are some intriguing battles elsewhere on the cluster table.

Ulsan Hyundai FC lead the K League 1 with 46 points from 19 matches. With eight games to go, they are ahead of three-time defending champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors by five points.

Sangju Sangmu is in third place, seven points behind. Below them, the middle of the 12-club league table is crowded.

The Pohang Steelers are three points behind Sangju, in fourth place at 31. Daegu FC are still five points behind.

Finishing in the top five has hardly been more important than this year, given what is at stake next season.

The K League 1 champion and the South Korean FA Cup winner will advance to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League next season. The second and third club from K League 1 will reach the AFC Champions League qualifiers, for a chance to advance to the group stage.

There are some twists and turns in this setup this year.

Sangju Sangmu might hold on to finish third, but they will not be eligible to play in the AFC Champions League as it is a military club – made up of players doing their compulsory service. This means that if Sangju ends up in third place, the fourth place club will advance to the AFC playoffs instead.

But what if the fourth place team is also the FA Cup champion? Then, the fifth-ranked team in the K League will advance to the Champions League qualifiers.

The FA Cup will have its semi-finals on September 23. Three of the four competitors are currently among the top four in the K League: Ulsan, Jeonbuk and Pohang. It is entirely possible that Pohang will win the FA Cup and finish fourth in the K League, allowing whoever finishes fifth to take part in the prestigious and lucrative AFC competition.

This should be more than enough to motivate clubs to make their way into the top five, even when winning a championship can be realistically out of reach.

After Daegu FC, the next five clubs – Gangwon FC, Gwangju FC, Seongnam FC, FC Seoul and Busan IPark – are separated by just one point, occupying places from sixth to 10th.

The goals scored are the first tiebreaker in the K League, followed by the goal difference. Gangwon, Gwangju and Seongnam have the same records of five wins, six draws and eight losses, with Gangwon now remaining in the lead thanks to her 24 goals. It is one more than Gwangju and seven more than Seongnam.

FC Seoul and Seongnam both scored 17 goals, but Seongnam is well ahead in the tiebreaker on goal difference, minus-4 to minus-18.

Perhaps the most dramatic race is at the bottom, with the last-place club automatically relegated to K League 2 in 2021.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings, a proud franchise that has struggled recently, is 11th with 17 points. Incheon United, who opened the season with a 15-game winless skid, has come to life with three wins in their last four games. They are 14 points away, hoping to pull off another act of survival after years of barely avoiding relegation.

There is another Sangju twist to the relegation scenario this year.

The military club will move to another city in the same North Gyeongsang province, Gimcheon, next year. And in exchange for the fresh start, the team will play the 2021 season in the K League 2. No matter where they place at the end of this season, they will be sent down to the lower competition.

Normally, with the 12th place team descending directly to the second division, the 11th place club had to survive a promotion-relegation playoff against a K League 2 opponent. This year, with Sangju Sangmu already occupying a quota. relegation for 2021, the other teams just have to stay out of the basement, and they will live to see another season in K League 1.

Suwon can go either way. They are only four points behind Gangwon for sixth place. On Tuesday, they named former franchise star Park Kun-ha as their new head coach. Perhaps Park will provide a much needed spark for a club that has only had two wins in their last eight games.

Three matches later, the 12 teams will be “split” into two levels: Final A and Final B. And during the split phase, the clubs will play the last five matches of the season in their own group.

The top four from Ulsan, Jeonbuk, Sangju and Pohang have already secured their places in the A final, with potentially six clubs vying for the last two places. (Yonhap)

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