The K League 1 Final Round reaches its midway point with things still very much to be decided at either end of the table, not to mention in the race for AFC Champions League football as well. Saturday sees Final Round B take centre stage with a mammoth tie between relegation-threatened Jeju United and Incheon United whereas Sunday will see Ulsan Hyundai try to maintain their three-point lead at the summit as they visit an FC Seoul hunting for continental football next season. These matches and more previewed in K League United's guide to Round 36.
Final Round B
Saturday 2nd November
#SSBvSFC: Suwon Samsung Bluewings (8th) vs Seongnam FC (9th) - 14:00
Suwon Samsung Bluewings could perhaps be forgiven for having their minds elsewhere this Saturday as they play hosts to local rivals Seongnam FC. With two legs of the FA Cup Final the following week, and the Champions League football winning it would subsequently bring, it is widely expected that manager Lee Lim-saeng will heavily rotate this fixture and perhaps use the occasion to offer a chance to fringe players who may be vying for late consideration in the final. One player who certainly will not be featuring though is Koo Ja-ryeong who is suspended for this match.
The previous round saw Seongnam FC finally secure their safety despite not being in any real threat of relegation thanks to a solid season built on a reliable defence and an ability to find results against some of the league's strongest teams. With no more concern of the drop, Seongnam and their fans can head to the Suwon World Cup Stadium on Sunday in high spirits and look to get one over their rivals in order to move closer to overtaking them in the table before the season ends. Manager Nam Ki-il has no suspensions to be concerned with and will be able to field his strongest possible team for this match.
#JEJvINC: Jeju United (12th) vs Incheon United (10th) - 16:00
While a loss would not mathematically relegate Jeju United, it would condemn them to at best contesting their fate in the promotion-relegation playoff. If Gyeongnam were then also to win elsewhere, their K League 2 fate would be sealed. Therefore, the Islanders must win this weekend, and with two home fixtures in a row against both Jeju United and Suwon Bluewings they still have a possibility of surviving but time is certainly running out. To make matters difficult for manager Choi Yun-kyum, defender Baek Dong-gyu will be suspended for this match after collecting his third yellow card since returning to Jeju in the previous outing.
It took a last gasp effort from Myung Jun-jae but Incheon United salvaged a valuable point against rivals Suwon Bluewings in Round 36 to keep their heads above water in this three-way relegation scrap. The draw also meant that they have now gone unbeaten in their last six matches as they continue to drag themselves from the bottom of the table. Even more impressive is the performances of striker Stefan Mugoša. While he may not have found joy against Suwon, his fourteen goals (with nine in his last ten) and ever-present threat have been crucial to his club's form. With no suspensions to be concerned with either, the team can continue to build momentum on this potentially season-saving run.
#GYEvSAN: Gyeongnam (11th) vs Sangju Sangmu (7th) - 18:00
After salvaging a draw against fellow relegation-threated side Jeju United last week, Gyeongnam remain just one point away from safety and will be hoping proceedings elsewhere will fall in their favour prior to the kick-off of this encounter. Gyeongnam have not struggled to find goals this season, with one of the better goals tallies in the lower half of the table, and this may prove valuable if they find themselves tied for 10th by the season is out. Their biggest issue remains their defence, with a whopping 59 goals conceded for the campaign and could wind up being the cause of their demise. Gyeongnam will be without Park Tae-hong for this match who is suspended, and will likely field a similar team to last time out.
Sangju Sangmu are currently enjoying arguably their best season ever, despite being unable to match their highest league position of sixth due to the split. The military side not only enjoyed an impressive cup campaign but have 49 points for the season which is a record high for the club. Therefore, it could be argued that they have little left to prove and could be favourable opposition for Gyeongnam to verse. However, Sangju manager Kim Tae-wan will undoubtedly be driving his side to finish as strong as possible ahead of the new batch of recruits arriving in the winter. Sanju will be without defender Kwon Wan-gyu for this game due to his suspension.
Final Round A
Sunday 3rd November
#POHvGAN: Pohang Steelers (6th) vs Gangwon FC (5th) - 14:00
Despite third place now being six points away and potentially out of reach, both Pohang and Gangwon will still be fighting to catch up with Daegu FC in fourth place in case Suwon Bluewings win the FA Cup later this month, subsequently turning this position into an AFC Champions League qualification spot. Gangwon FC had the unenviable task of trying to halt league leaders Ulsan Hyundai in the last round, eventually losing 2-1. Pohang could prove a more forgiving task though and could see the away side move into fourth and within three points of FC Seoul if results elsewhere go there way. They will have to do without striker Jeong Seung-young, however, as the player sits out through suspension. They will also be without their two top scorers Kim Ji-hyun and Cho Jae-wan who are out injured for the remainder of the season.
Despite their late rally to break into the top six, Pohang have faltered since commencing these Final Round A fixtures. The Steelers followed up their defeat to Jeonbuk with a goalless draw against Daegu FC, missing a real opportunity to progress further up the table and into continental contention. While defeat this weekend would not rule out their hopes of returning to Asia's biggest competition, it would certainly prove a setback that they should try to avoid. Pohang will have to make do without Lee Sang-gi this weekend as the attacker is suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
#SEOvULS: FC Seoul (3rd) vs Ulsan Hyundai (1st) - 15:00
Sunday's marquee match sees FC Seoul welcome league leaders Ulsan Hyundai with both sides needing points in their plight for Champions League and the K League 1 title respectively. FC Seoul come into this match off the back of a defensively resolute performance in Jeonju that saw them take a much-needed point from the champions and they will be expecting to do more of the same this coming weekend if they are to keep a ruthless Horangi at bay. The capital club will also see their ranks bolstered with pivotal midfielders Ju Se-jong and Ikromjon Alibaev returning to the fold after sitting out due to suspension, yet they will be without the influential Go Yo-han whose yellow card in the last round means he misses out here.
Ulsan Hyundai's win over Gangwon FC in the last round took them three points clear at the summit and puts them in a strong position for the final three matches. It has been two wins out of two since the split but arguably the hardest fixtures lie ahead. Worryingly for Ulsan, they will be without their top scorer Junior whose booking in the last match sees him suspended for this Sunday. Ulsan have strength in depth, however, and will likely look towards Joo Min-kyu as a player who could step and make the vital difference.
#DAEvJHM: Daegu FC (4th) vs Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (2nd) - 18:00
A Cesinha-less Daegu FC laboured to a goalless draw against Pohang Steelers, missing a golden opportunity to catch up on FC Seoul and the remaining AFC Champions League qualification spot. Fortunately, they will be able to welcome back the talismanic Brazilian for this encounter and bolster their chances of victory against the champions. Daegu have won, lost and drawn across the three fixtures against Jeonbuk this season and will be hoping they can cause an upset once more on Sunday evening. They will have to do so without Shin Chang-moo, however, who is suspended for this game.
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors had to work hard against a well-drilled FC Seoul outfit in order to salvage a draw, a result that now makes each of these last three games almost must-wins if they are to retain their title. Jeonbuk found it hard to break down their visitors at the weekend, with the concern being that Seoul may well have shown the rest of the teams that Jeonbuk are yet to face an effective blueprint on how to stifle them. Jeonbuk have no suspensions coming into this match, however, but will continue to be without striker Samuel Rosa and potentially right back Lee Yong due to injury.
K League United Associate Editor