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Preview: Sangju Sangmu vs FC Seoul

Both teams already know which side of the split they will be on, but there's plenty to play for between two sides fighting to save their season. Sangju looks to go five unbeaten in an attempt to claw their way out of the four team tie for 11th place and the relegation playoff. Meanwhile, Seoul's dream of repeating is long gone, but a win could be enough to take 4th place and stake a claim at next year's AFC Champions League. Add in the league's hottest striker in Sangju's Joo Minkyu, and this could be an under the radar delight on decision Sunday.
(image via facebook.com/sangjufc)

Overview

(soccerway.com)

That'll Do

Seoul's 1-0 victory against a Jeonnam team that hasn't won in eight games wasn't exactly an emphatic showing that will strike fear into the rest of the top six, but it was enough to get three points and that's all that matters this time of year. Though both sides did well to create chances throughout the match, neither was able to find the accuracy needed to break the deadlock in a match that seemed destined for 0-0. It took until the 80th minute for Park Chuyoung to find the breakthrough in the form of an expertly placed free kick that no keeper would have had a chance at saving. The goal was the Korean veteran's 8th of the season and first from a free kick this year. He's converted from the spot three times, and headed in a corner once, which leaves just three of his goals from open play. It's a lower total than was expected in what's been a largely disappointing year for the former Monaco man, but much like the three points his free kick guaranteed, it's enough right now.

The Race for ACL

Ulsan remain eight points ahead of Seoul for the final guaranteed AFC Champions League spot for 2018, but the rival Bluewings are now just two points ahead after their somewhat controversial draw vs Jeonbuk last round. The narrow gap marks the closest Seoul has come to 4th place since their three way tie for the position with Gangwon and Jeju over two months ago. Though they'll need some help from Pohang to ensure a Suwon loss, Seoul could head into the post split playoffs defending 4th place instead of striving for it. As mentioned before, 4th won't guarantee them an ACL spot, but if they can hold that position and Ulsan win the FA Cup, then Seoul will get a spot in next year's ACL.

That's a lot of "ifs" and help needed for a team that really should have done better this year, but the fact remains Seoul could salvage the season by doing what they traditionally have done after the split: win.
FC Seoul's Post-Split Record
2016 – W4 D1
2015 – W2 D2 L1 (Pohang)
2014 – W2 D2 L1 (Jeonbuk)
2013 – W2 D2 L1 (Pohang)
2012 – W4 L1 (Pohang)
Having lost a meager four times in the last five post-split campaigns, Seoul should already be feeling pretty good heading into the final stretch. Especially when considering they won't have to face the Pohang side that's beaten them three of those four times. Add in the fact Seoul has taken fewer losses (3) to top six opponents than bottom six (5), and they're sitting even prettier. However, if this team has proven anything this year, it's that stats won't often tell the story. Their fate is largely in their hands now for the first time in memory this year, and they simply take care of the task in front of them starting Sunday with a team they've had a bit more trouble with than expected recently.

Previous Meetings

Though Seoul have only lost eight of the 36 matches these sides have played, they've only won once in the previous five meetings, and that was over a calendar year ago. In their most recent match back in Round 16, Seoul coughed up a one goal lead to Hwang Soonmin's equalizer in the 51st and got punched in the teeth in stoppage time when Kim Honam hit home the game winner in the 91st. And this was at Seoul World Cup Stadium, a venue where Sangju hadn't won since 2005. The only other meeting between the military and capital clubs this season ended in a frustrating 2-2 draw. Even without the ACL implications this match carries, Seoul would be looking to exact revenge for the home defeat they suffered back in June. Conversely, Sangju will be looking to win their first season series vs Seoul since 2014 and separate themselves from the relegation battle.

The Adversary

A month ago Sangju was plummeting down the K League Classic table so drastically it seemed they may be the out Gwangju has desperately been looking for all year. However, when given the opportunity to uproot themselves from the foot of the table, Gwangju conceded twice in stoppage time and lit a fire under Sangju that's carried the team to this day. The army side followed up their relegation six pointer with a shock 2-1 come from behind victory over league-leaders Jeonbuk in Jeonju the following round. Seemingly ready to crash back to earth the following week playing second place Jeju, they instead sprinted out to a 2-0 lead thanks to a Joo Minkyu brace and held on for a draw. Bouyed by yet another Minkyu brace last round, Sangju undid Pohang's 85th minute Sim Dongwoon go ahead goal in the 94th to steal another point. With Seoul as their final top six opponent for the season, Sangju seem primed to survive the drop should they keep their current form against fellow Relegation Round opposition.

Who To Watch

With 11 goals in seven matches, Joo Minkyu is unquestionably K League's hottest striker at present and doesn't seem anywhere near finished. The tremendous spell has vaulted him to third highest in the Golden Boot race, and he enters Sunday coming off back to back braces. If his goal scoring record weren't enough reason to keep an eye on him Sunday, he also has the chance to make history by setting the K League record for consecutive matches scored at eight. He may have had to go to the military to finally play in the top flight, but it's been a delightful run of form for a player that's been getting regular praise on this site since 2015. One that hopefully propels him closer to the Korean National Team call up he's deserved.

Prediction

Sangju have been a thorn in Seoul's side all season, and I don't see Sunday being any different. Seoul has enough to fight for that I can't see them losing the match, but the army side (and specifically Joo Minkyu) have been nearly impossible to keep down for the past month. Look for both sides to get on the board, but not to be able to pull away.

Sangju Sangmu 2-2 FC Seoul

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