The K League 1 table is as closely contested as it's been in recent memory with just two match days remaining before the Championship and Relegation Round split. K League United Editor in Chief Ryan Walters previews this weekend's pivotal matches for teams vying for a top half position when Round 32 finishes.
Saturday 28th September
#ULSvSFC: Ulsan Hyundai (2nd) vs Seongnam FC (9th) 14:00
Tied on points and just one goal scored behind Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors for top spot, Ulsan Hyundai welcome Seongnam FC for what is most likely the last meeting between the two this season. Midweek results could not have gone better for the Horangi as they took care of their own business picking up a much needed 2-0 win against Suwon Samsung Bluewings and got some help from Daegu FC who saw off Jeonbuk by the same score. The pair of results means the title race is razor thin heading into the split, and Ulsan will need another win this weekend to ensure it stays that way. Unfortunately for the hosts, things aren't as easy as they appear on paper. Having already lost to Seongnam this season, Saturday afternoon's result is far from a guarantee. Look for manager Kim Dohoon to put out his strongest side this weekend regardless of the congested schedule they have coming up.
Buoyed by a narrow 1-0 win over Gangwon midweek, Seongnam are still mathematically in the hunt for the top six, but reaching that milestone will be no small task. Nothing but a win will do against their next two opponents, Ulsan and Daegu, and they will likely need multiple goals in each game to do so. As they league's lowest scoring side, Seongnam face an uphill battle against an Ulsan side that's been held scoreless just twice at home this season. However, having already put together a three match winning streak this year and beaten nearly all of the top teams, the Magpies have proven capable of pulling off the unexpected time and again this season.
#DAEvJEJ: Daegu FC (4th) vs Jeju United (12th) 14:00
Daegu FC return home triumphant after beating Jeonbuk for the first time since 2012 midweek and putting themselves back into the ACL discussion. Now just five points off FC Seoul in third and the guaranteed Champions League place that comes with that position, Daegu welcome the league's bottom side in a match they will be heavily favored to win. Korean National Team goalkeeper Cho Hyunwoo was in spectacular form Wednesday night keeping Jeonbuk's league best attack at bay, and the return of Edgar Silva and his goals could not have come at a better time for the club. Having already scored a match winning goal against Jeju this season, look for the Brazilian to be in and around the net again Saturday as Daegu attempt to push their unbeaten streak to eight matches and keep the pressure on FC Seoul.
Unlike the hosts, things are looking quite dire for a Jeju United side that just keeps underperforming. Another loss midweek, this time at the hands of the surging Pohang Steelers, combined with Incheon's 3-2 win over Sangju sees the Islanders on the bottom of the table yet again. Their resounding 3-0 win over Seongnam in Round 30 seemed to push Jeju away from Incheon and the automatic drop that accompanies 12th place, but their league worst defense continues to ship goals in games they desperately need points from. With exception of their three goal outburst against Seongnam, the attack hasn't been much better getting shut out in three of their previous five matches. If Jeju's to have any hope of survival this season, they need to start picking up points however they can get them. Manager Choi Yunkyum knows this and may well set his defensive line very deep in an attempt to grind out a 0-0 or 1-1 draw for a point away from home.
#JHMvSSB: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (1st) vs Suwon Samsung Bluewings (8th) 16:00
Tied on points with Ulsan and clinging to first place by a one goal margin, Jeonbuk remain at home and welcome rivals Suwon to town in hopes of getting back to winning ways. The 2-0 loss vs Daegu FC midweek was just the third time this season the defending champs failed to pick up a point, but the manner in which it happened was slightly more alarming. Continually out of sorts and unable to pick up Daegu on the counter attack, Jeonbuk may have accidentally showed teams the formula to beating them this season. Talisman Lee Donggook missing another penalty this season is also a worrying sign and asks some serious questions of who should be taking penalties moving forward. The good news for the Jeonju faithful turning up for the match this weekend is the fact their team hasn't lost to Suwon in league play in over two years time, picking up four wins and two draws in their previous six meetings. With the Round 30 make up game against Gyeongnam scheduled for Wednesday night, expect manager José Morais to rotate the squad that took the field midweek to keep his players fresh for the final push before the league splits.
Held scoreless for the 11th time this season and picking up their fifth loss in nine matches in all competitions, the league season is looking lost for Suwon. Currently down 1-0 to fourth division side Hwaseong FC in the FA Cup Semifinal, the Bluewings should be putting all of their eggs in that basket in hopes of winning the competition and returning to ACL with the trophy in hand. Manager Lee Limsaeng has quite often looked lost this season, but even he knows there is very little to gain by attempting to go toe-to-toe with Jeonbuk this weekend and will likely field a B-squad in an attempt to rest players for Wednesday night's second leg against Hwaseong. That said, the gaffer doesn't seem to be able to keep Adam Taggart out of his plans and off the field for any duration of time regardless of match congestion or injury concerns. If Suwon can keep things relatively close, the Socceroos striker may come on late in an attempt to steal points away from their Southern rivals.
The K League United Podcast
Sunday 29th September
#GANvINC: Gangwon FC (5th) vs Incheon United (11th) 14:00
Still safe from the Relegation Round with a five point gap between them and seventh placed Sangju Sangmu, Gangwon can mathematically seal a top six finish this weekend with a win against Incheon United. Unfortunately for them, they will have to do so without leading scorer Kim Jihyun as the 23 year old is out with a knee injury that may keep him sidelined for the rest of the season. To make matters worse, Gangwon also won't have second highest scorer Cho Jaewan for 6-8 weeks due to injury. No stranger to stepping up in big moments, veteran Jung Jogook will be relied on to lead the line in Kim Jihyun and Cho Jaewan's absences. Jung bagged a brace the last time these sides faced off and could desperately use a similar result as he's been kept off the scoresheet for well over a month.
For the visiting Incheon, the great escape may be on yet again as United picked up a surprise 3-2 win over FA Cup Semifinalists Sangju Sangmu midweek. After roaring out to a 3-0 lead with goals from Mugoša and Lee Woohyeok, everything nearly came unraveled as Sangju found their way back into it with a pair of second half strikes. However, Incheon hung on and the win was enough to leapfrog Jeju and draw level on points with Gyeongnam in the relegation battle. Although they have lost to Gangwon twice this season, the margin of defeat was just one goal in each of those games. If Incheon can put on the same performance in Chuncheon that they did in Sangju, they may be able to put breathing room between them and the drop to K2.
#SEOvSAN: FC Seoul (3rd) vs Sangju Sangmu (7th) 15:00
Still decidedly in third place, but nevertheless in need of a victory, FC Seoul remain at home and welcome military outfit Sangju Sangmu to the World Cup Stadium Sunday afternoon. Just over ten minutes away from their second win in three, the Seoul defense lost track of Bae Kijong and allowed Gyeongnam to pick up a vital point in their quest to stave off relegation. Unlike last season, Seoul has no such concerns this late on, but their grip on the third and final ACL spot may slip from their grasp should they continue to perform the way they have the past two games. Pohang and Gyeongnam each have something to play for at this stage in the season, and Seoul's distance from the title race seems to be showing through as the capital club has been outplayed largely on an emotional basis of late. The Pohang loss followed by a late equalizer should be enough to galvanize the team as they go for the season sweep against Sangju this season. With just one win in seven, manager Choi Yongsoo needs to do whatever it takes to get his men back on track before the season ends in disappointment yet again.
Mere days away from a crucial FA Cup Semifinal second leg that sees them level with National League side Daejeon Korail, Sangju must make the trek North to a venue they haven't won in for two years. To say their attention will be elsewhere is beyond an understatement as the club is all but mathematically eliminated from the Championship Round and likely aren't bothered by that fact. With survival in K1 already secured this season, all of Sangju's attention has rightly shifted to the FA Cup where they are lucky not to be 2-1 down considering Korail's late surge in the first leg. Look for the young recruits to get some minutes this weekend as the best eleven is rested for their midweek affair.
#GYEvPOH: Gyeongnam FC (10th) vs Pohang Steelers (6th) 16:00
Two teams heading in opposite directions square off for what may be the final time this season when Gyeongnam FC host Pohang for the final match of the weekend. The Reds put in another strong performance midweek against FC Seoul to claw a point out of a match they were losing late on for the second straight time. Two points that have proven vital as they now find themselves level with Incheon United and facing the very real possibility of the Promotion/Relegation playoff, or even a straight drop back to K2 should Jeju's form pick up. Having already lost to Pohang twice this season, Gyeongnam need summer signing Uroš Đerić at his absolute best this weekend if they are to have any hope of salvaging a point against a team that's put six past them this season.
Two second half tallies from Stanislav Iljutcenko proved enough for Pohang to see off Jeju United and move above the dividing line just two games before the league splits. The Russian striker seems to be finding his feet at the perfect time for the Steelers as they attempt to hold on to their top half position. Additionally, Iljutcenko scoring means teams will have to take some of the focus off of EA Sports August Player of the Month, Wanderson, which could see the Brazilian add to his already career best 13 goals. Knowing that a win could be enough to secure top six, expect Pohang to hit the ground running Sunday and wrap things up as early as possible.
K League United Associate Editor