With the final ACL spot and a relegation playoff place yet to be decided, it was never going to be a straightforward weekend in the K League. Yet no one could quite have predicted the late drama which seen last season’s K-League champions Pohang Steleers lose out on the final ACL spot despite holding a spot in the top three since the season began.
Going into the final fixture, only a Seoul win and Pohang loss would have seen Seoul claim the final ACL berth. With 75 minutes on the clock this looked almost impossible, with Pohang in control of second-placed Suwon Bluewings with a 1-0 lead at home and FC Seoul drawing 1-1 against the stubborn Jeju United. Yet two late goals from Suwon to defeat Pohang and an incredible 94th minute winner from Osmar seen witness to some ecstatic scenes at the Seoul World Cup Stadium.
Pohang can hardly feel hard done by, despite the cruel way in which they lost the third position. A dreadful run of only one win in eleven matches means they will be looking to make radical changes this winter into order to develop a winning team once more.
In the relegation playoff, Seongnam FC capped an incredible week by winning 1-0 at home to Busan International Park. Just 10 days ago, Seongnam arguably looked like the most likely team to finish second bottom amidst a barren run of form and an FA Cup Final match which scarcely anyone realistically thought they could win. Yet, 10 days later they have succeeded in producing nothing short of a minor Korean miracle, winning all three matches and securing safety, the FA Cup, and a place in next season’s ACL.
It was a fantastic achievement for Kim Hak-bum, who since being appointed in April has built a highly organised side characterised with a steely determination to not concede goals.
Gyeongnam FC, who will now face the relegation playoff battle are now facing a battle for survival against K-League Challenge side Gwangju FC, who despite having a far from convincing season – scraping fourth position – have hit form at the right time beating Ansan Police 3-0 on the weekend to secure the playoff match.
Gyeongnam have been nothing short of dismal in the past few months, only winning two of their last nine matches. On the weekend, they suffered a convincing 2-0 defeat to already-relegated Sangju City, looking devoid of ideas and perhaps more worryingly the fighting spirit which will be needed to stay in the division. This, combined with a lack of goals throughout the squad means they are facing a battle to keep hold of their K-League status.
The playoff matches will be played on Wednesday and Saturday; the first leg is at Gwangju’s “Guus Hiddink Stadium” and with the Korean winter just starting to really bite, it will be a match where the side who fights hardest will win. The stakes are high; relegation to the K-League Challenge results in a huge loss of revenue and a rapid return to the top flight is far from a guarantee.