(ATTN: ADDS comments in paras 9-16)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) — So they meet again.
Ulsan Hyundai FC and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the two best clubs in the K League 1 in 2020, will square off for the final time in the league this season Sunday. The match will kick off at 4:30 p.m. at Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, 415 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
With two matches remaining, Ulsan and Jeonbuk are tied with the most points in the league at 54, and no other club has a chance to catch them. Ulsan remain ahead of Jeonbuk for now, thanks to their edge in the goals scored tiebreaker, 51-43.
For all intents and purposes, Sunday’s match will play out like the championship final. For their season finale on Nov. 1, Ulsan and Jeonbuk will both face beatable opponents, Gwangju FC and Daegu FC, respectively. The two top dogs will likely collect their three points there, in which case the final difference could be the result of their meeting this coming weekend.
The eight-goal deficit may be too much for Jeonbuk to erase over the final two matches, and they’ll likely have to finish ahead of Ulsan in points to claim an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. Ulsan, on the other hand, appear to be in the driver’s seat, barring any last-minute collapse.
But the key word here is collapse. Ulsan are certainly no strangers to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They did just that last season, losing to Pohang Steelers 4-1 on the final day of the season when a draw would have been enough for their first title since 2005. Jeonbuk squeezed past Ulsan for the title.
Ulsan players must have had flashbacks last weekend, when they were thoroughly beat up by Pohang 4-0 while losing two key players, defender Dave Bulthuis and forward Bjorn Johnsen, to direct red cards. Both players have been automatically suspended for the final two matches of the season.
Ulsan will also have to overcome their mental block against Jeonbuk, having lost the first two meetings of the season. Jeonbuk took the first match 2-0 on June 28 and then won the next match on Sept. 15 by 2-1. Those were Ulsan’s first two losses of the entire season.
Ulsan head coach Kim Do-hoon said Thursday the past losses against Jeonbuk are already behind them, and his team’s focus is only on the upcoming match.
“We’ll try to stick to our strengths,” Kim said during an online media conference. “We know we’ve missed a few opportunities to extend our lead at the top, but we’re still in first place and still have a chance to win the title.”
Ulsan defender Kim Tae-hwan said he’s more excited about Sunday’s match than any other game this season.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to prove that we’re worthy of a championship,” he added. “Both teams have some talented players. We have to win individual battles within the match.”
Jeonbuk head coach Jose Morais said his objective is to win every match, regardless of the opponents.
“I am grateful for this opportunity to play in such an important match,” Morais said through an interpreter. “It has been fun preparing for this match with my players. I am trying to enjoy every moment.”
Son Jun-ho, a key midfielder for Jeonbuk, said he believes his club has championship DNA, built through their current run of three straight titles and five championships in six years.
“We’ve always won big matches,” Son said. “We just need to play the way we’re capable of playing, focus on the process and stay patient.”
There is also some drama at the bottom of the K League 1 table, with three clubs trying to avoid finishing last and thus being relegated to the K League 2.
Incheon United are the cellar dwellers now with 21 points, and Seongnam FC sit just one point above them. Busan IPark are in 10th place with 25 points.
Incheon and Busan will collide at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul. Seongnam will face Suwon Samsung Bluewings at 7 p.m. Friday in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of the capital,
Busan, who earned the promotion from the K League 2 for this season, will guarantee themselves at least another year in the K League 1 with a draw. A combination of a Seongnam win and an Incheon loss will mean relegation for Incheon.
An Incheon win and a Seongnam loss will further complicate the picture and take their survival battle to their final matchday of the season on Oct. 31.