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Top 6 football clubs enter final race for league title after split

Coaches of South Korea’s top six soccer clubs said Tuesday they are ready to put in their best efforts to take the league’s championship trophy in the remaining five matches.

The K League Classic is operating under the split system, in which the 12 teams are divided into two tiers after their first 33 matches. Starting this weekend, they will play five more matches within their groups to conclude the 2017 season.

Four-time champion Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors leads the way in the upper group, or Group A, and are joined by Jeju United, Ulsan Hyundai FC, Suwon Samsung Bluewings, FC Seoul and Gangwon FC. They will vie for the league title and also spots in next year’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League.

South Korea has 3.5 slots at the AFC Champions League.

The top three finishers in the K League Classic can advance to the premier Asian club competition next year, although the third-place team needs to go through a playoff round. The Korean Football Association Cup winner is also given a ticket to the ACL group stage. 

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head coach Choi Kang-hee (3rd from L) speaks during a press conference at the Korea Football Association building in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2017. (Yonhap)
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors head coach Choi Kang-hee (3rd from L) speaks during a press conference at the Korea Football Association building in Seoul on Oct. 10, 2017. (Yonhap)

Pohang Steelers, Daegu FC, Jeonnam Dragons, Sangju Sangmu, Incheon United and Gwangju FC are in the lower group, or Group B.

The worst team in this group will be relegated to the second division K League Challenge. The second worst team will have to face a playoff winner from the Challenge to determine its fate.

Jeonbuk, led by head coach Choi Kang-hee, is the leader with 65 points from 19 wins, eight draws and six losses. Choi’s side is eager to lift the league trophy again and wash away the painful memory of the 2016 season.

Jeonbuk finished second last year behind Seoul after it was penalized nine points by the league’s discipline committee over a bribe scandal that involved one of their scouts and referees in 2013.

Jeonbuk was also banned from competing this year’s ACL because of the scandal and lost its opportunity to defend the Asian crown. The AFC’s decision, however, forced Jeonbuk to focus only on the Classic league title. Although its numbers isn’t impressive as last year, Jeonbuk is still the best in the league in terms of goals scored -- 62 -- as well as goals conceded -- 31.

Choi said his side is the public enemy again, but will fend off challenges from other clubs.

“I don‘t feel offended just because everyone is looking to beat us,” Choi said at a media event in Seoul. “In order to win the championship, you need to overcome challenges from other teams, but what’s also important is that we need to control our own difficulties.”

Jeonbuk will begin the split round with a game against reigning champion Seoul on Sunday at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province. Last year, it suffered 1-0 loss to Seoul on the final day of the league campaign and watched the visitor celebrating on its home turf.

Following Jeonbuk are Jeju and Ulsan. The two teams are tied at 59 points, six behind Jeonbuk, but Jeju sits in second place, having scored 23 more goals than Ulsan. In the K League, the first tiebreaker between two teams with same points is goals scored.

Jeju, currently sporting a 17-8-8 win-draw-loss record, finished third last year. The club hasn’t lifted the league trophy since 1989, and head coach Jo Sung-hwan said it aims to end a long drought.

“We need to reduce the gap with Jeonbuk and stay in the title race until the end,” he said. “I’m sure other clubs will take on Jeonbuk well, and our job is to win the remaining five matches.”

Ulsan, led by head coach Kim Do-hoon, finished fourth last year. The club, which currently has win-loss-draw figures of 16-11-6, has the smallest goal difference among the teams in the upper group. Kim’s team found the net only 39 times, while surrendering 33 goals. Ulsan is also looking for a league-cup double as it has also reached the FA Cup final.

“We were worried about our performance at the beginning of the season including the ACL, but it turned out that experience helped us to reach this upper group,” he said. “No teams are easy in this stage, so we’ll have to put in our best effort until the end.”

League rivals Suwon and Seoul are both tied at 53 points from 14 wins, 11 losses and 8 draws, but the former has the tiebreaking edge in goals scored, with 54 versus 48.

Suwon played in the lower group last year for the first time in the club history. Head coach Seo Jung-won said although its recent performance was shaky, it is now in good condition to play in the upper group. Suwon can also take a shot at the league-cup double as it is in the FA Cup semifinals.

“At this point, you have to give everything,” he said. “We will try our best in both the league and the FA Cup because both competitions are important.”

Seoul boss Hwang Sun-hong said its priority is to win a ticket to the ACL. Although it is in fifth place, Hwang said his side still has a chance.

“When you’re a coach, sometimes you feel too tired and stressed and I think the 2017 season could be one of those times,” he said.

“But the 2017 season is not over, and we still have five matches left. We’ll play passionate soccer for our fans.”

Gangwon has qualified for the upper group for the first time in their club history after collecting 46 points with a win-loss-draw record of 12-10-11. The newly promoted club was one of the hottest clubs this season after it acquired slew of big-name players.

Gangwon is currently managed by caretaker Park Hyo-jin, who took over the helm in August after head coach Choi Yun-kyum resigned following team’s poor performance in this summer.

“We know we can’t take the title even if we win all five matches,” he said. “Our goal is to win a ticket to the ACL. I know it’s not going to be easy, but if we try hard, I’m sure we’ll also get an opportunity.” (Yonhap)