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Analysis: AFC Champions League Race

Heading into the 'Final Round A' the 2019 K League title will be decided, potentially on the final day, with little separating the top two. However, whilst Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors have already qualified for the 2020 AFC Champions League, there is still one more spot left. Currently, FC Seoul sit in third place, fourth points above Daegu FC in the last ACL place. FC Seoul manager Choi Yongsoo has tempered expectations but Daegu FC have made it clear that they want a second successive ACL campaign. Editor Paul Neat takes a detailed look at which teams headed into the split in third to see if history is on FC Seoul's side.

FC Seoul vs Daegu FC vs Pohang Steelers vs Gangwon FC

via KLeague.com
The battle for the final AFC Champions League spot will be between FC Seoul, Daegu FC, Pohang Steelers, and Gangwon FC. FC Seoul looked all but set for a place in the AFC Champions League for 2020, returning for the first time since 2017. However, following some erratic form throughout the summer and into the autumn months, Choi Yongsoo's side's grasp over third place isn't quite as strong as it once was.

There are five games yet to play and Seoul have a somewhat slender lead over Daegu FC in fourth with just four points separating the two sides. Furthermore, Pohang Steelers' stellar form heading into Final Round has given the North Gyeongsang side an outside chance of making it into third, sitting six points behind. The battle for third looked to be between Seoul, Daegu and Gangwon just a few weeks ago but injuries to Cho Jaewan and Kim Jihyun, who looked set for Young Player of the Year Award after reaching double figures in just his second season as a professional, has limited Kim Byungsoo's striking options and 'Byungsoo Ball' isn't rolling with quite the same verve it was a few weeks ago. However, mathematically, Gangwon can still finish third.

Historically, since the split system was introduced in 2012, which of the teams who have occupied third place heading into the last matches of the season have gone on to secure continental football qualification?

Third Place Holders Pre and Post Split Rounds

2012 Suwon Samsung Bluewings - Failed to Qualify

Jung Sungryong, now of Kawasaki Frontale in J.League 1, made 33 appearances in 2012 Suwon Bluewings.
Pre-split Suwon Samsung Bluewings sat in third, level on points with Ulsan and even shared the same goal difference of +12. But, the Buewings had a better goals scored record of 48 to 43 but with teams set to play each other two more times post split, it was very much all to play for. In 2012, though, it was neither the Bluewings nor Ulsan who made it into third place that year, both were beaten to it by Pohang Steelers who ended up sitting four points above Suwon in fourth and nine points above East Coast rivals Ulsan Hyundai.

Pre-split, Pohang were three points behind in fifth but Suwon won just one post-split match, drawing their first four before beating Busan IPark at home, but lost their last two matches - one of which was against Pohang. Ulsan, who were of course level on points and goal difference heading into the split, didn't fair much better either. The Horangi won their last two matches of the season but hadn't won in five before that, drawing three and losing twice.


2013 Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors - Qualified 

Lee Donggook scored 13 goals for Jeonbuk in 2013.
Heading into the last six matches of the season in a 14-team K League, Jeonbuk were two points clear of FC Seoul in third. The Green Warriors ended the season just a point clear of Seoul and knew that they had to face the capital club two more times in a 12-match post-split campaign. Despite winning just four in 12, Jeonbuk went onto clinch third after drawing with FC Seoul on the last day to finish one point clear. However, because Pohang Steelers won the FA Cup as well as the K League title, fourth place was enough for a place in the AFC Champions League for FC Seoul regardless.

Post Split Record: DLWLLLWWDWDL

2014 Pohang Steelers - Failed to Qualify

Kim Seungdae (R) was Pohang's top scorer in 2014 with 10 league goals.
Pohang Steelers had a five-point cushion over FC Seoul heading into the last five matches of the season. However, post split, Seoul made up the five point gap to draw level on points with Pohang who failed to win a single post-split game and, thanks to a superior goal difference of +14 to the Steelers' +11, Seoul clinched third place. This was when the K League was still decided on goal difference and not goals scored as it is today. If this had have happened now then Seoul would have finished fourth because of an inferior goals scored record with 42 to Pohang's 50. FC Seoul went on to lose the FA Cup Final to Seongnam FC meaning that, had Seoul have won, it would have allowed Pohang to qualify by finishing in fourth.

Post Split Record: LDLDD

2015 Pohang Steelers - Qualified

Tiago (R) during his time with Pohang in 2015.
For the second season in succession it was Pohang Steelers who were sat in third place heading into the last five matches of the season. This time, though, the Steelers were able to book their place in the ACL. Pohang were two points above Seongnam pre-split and, thanks to four wins and a draw, sealed third place, two clear of Seongnam and Seoul. However, FC Seoul won the FA Cup in 2015 and so went on to qualify despite finishing in fifth place.

Post Split Record: WWWWD

2016 Jeju United - Qualified

Marcelo Toscano was Jeju United's leading scorer with 11 in 2016.
Jeju United's first foray into continental competition began in 2016 when, after 33 rounds, the islanders were just one point clear of Ulsan in fourth. Post split, Jeju lost just once with three wins and a draw. Ulsan however, won just once, a 2-1 away win over Sangju who had made it into the top six for the first time in their history. The gap between Jeju in third and Ulsan in fourth widened to four points. In 2016 Suwon Bluewings, who finished in the bottom half of the split, went on to win the FA Cup and so third place remained as the last ACL spot.

Post Split Record: WDLWW.

2017 Ulsan Hyundai - Qualified as FA Cup Winners

Goalkeeper Kim Yongdae went on to win a third FA Cup with three different clubs to secure an ACL spot when Ulsan beat Busan.
Pre-split Ulsan were sitting extremely comfortably with a six-point cushion over Suwon Bluewings in fourth. However, a disastrous post split campaign, which saw the Horangi lose four and win just once, which allowed Suwon, who picked up three wins and two draws, to leapfrog them into third place. However, Kim Dohoon's side got their act together in the FA Cup, beating second tier Busan IPark 2-1 on aggregate to book their place in the ACL for 2018.

Post Split Record: WLLLL

2018 Ulsan Hyundai - Qualified

Junior was Ulsan's leading scorer in 2018 with 22 league goals.
Much like the previous year, Ulsan were third and comfortably so - this time with a seven-point gap over Suwon Bluewings. However, unlike 2017, it was the Bluewings who fell away post-split, failing to win a single match with four defeats and a draw. Ulsan's form wasn't fantastic, but with two wins and a draw, was enough to secure third spot with a nine-point gap.

Post Split Record: WLDLW


Four out of seven teams who occupied third place went on to secure a spot in the AFC Champions League: Jeonbuk in 2013 who had a two-point cushion pre-split, Pohang in 2015 who also had a two-point gap over fourth, Jeju in 2016 with just a one-point gap, and Ulsan in 2018 who had a seven-point gap above fourth. FC Seoul's four-point gap in 2019 gives them more margin for error than three of those teams did but, based on the four teams' who able to maintain third spot, the point average difference is three points, one less than what Seoul currently have.

For the three teams who have been able to reach third despite sitting lower down in the table, Ulsan, Seoul and Pohang, the average point gap is 4.66 based on the three point gap which Pohang had to make up over Suwon and Ulsan in 2012, the five-point gap based on FC Seoul pipping Pohang in 2014, and the six-point gap which Suwon Bluewings closed between themselves and Ulsan. Daegu, then, still have a very good chance of qualifying, whilst Pohang have an outside chance as only in 2017 have a team made up a six-point gap to qualify. For Gangwon, with their eight-point gap, it would be a first for a team with such a points difference if they were to go on and finish third.

Points Differences

2018 - 7
2017 - 6
2016 - 1
2015 - 2
2014 - 5
2013 - 2
2012 - 0

From 2012 to 2018 the average points gap between third and fourth place is 3.28.  In 2015, 2016, and 2018 the gap grew wider post split; Ulsan’s gap grew from seven to nine points in 2018 whilst in 2016 Jeju United’s gap grew from one point to four, and in 2015 Pohang’s gap grew from two points to four points. However, there have been cases of teams who have still held onto third place despite the gap in points shortening; in 2013, Jeonbuk’s two-point lead became just one point.

In 2012, for what was a 16-team K League, Suwon Bluewings headed into the split in third but level on points and goal difference, this was when K League was decided on goal difference as opposed to now where goals scored is the decider should two teams finish level on points. However, Suwon lost out to Pohang. Ulsan, who were in fourth pre-split, fell to fifth and nine points behind third.

In 2013, for what was a 14-team K League with 12 post-split matches, Jeonbuk were two points clear of FC Seoul. However, due to Pohang Steelers winning the league and FA Cup, fourth place then became an ACL spot.

What's Needed

The team which has finished in third, the final ACL place in a 12-team K League 1 (since 2014), the post split record has been on average: 2.6 wins, 1.4 draws and 0.8 defeats. So, two or three wins, one or two draws and no more than one defeat should be enough to earn FC Seoul a place in the ACL for 2020.

But, what do the chasing pack need to do? Ignoring the 2012 season, when Pohang had 14 matches to overcome the three-point gap, the form of FC Seoul in 2014 and Suwon Bluewings in 2017 needs to be examined to determine what Daegu, Pohang or Gangwon need to do in order to qualify. In 2014 Seoul picked up two wins, two draws and had just one loss but their third place rivals Pohang failed to win a single match and so, it could be argued that the Steelers' collapse which allowed Seoul into third was a significant factor. Furthermore, in 2017 Suwon Bluewings won three and drew twice post split but Ulsan lost four from five. In short, the chasing pack would need FC Seoul to suffer a major collapse post-split for them to make up the four-point gap and into third. For FC Seoul, who currently have a four point lead over Daegu, six point lead over Pohang, and an eight-point lead over Gangwon, have an above average lead heading into the Final Round.

Records Against the Current Top Six

FC Seoul 

FC Seoul have three wins from three against fourth place Daegu in 2019.
FC Seoul have won just five matches against the current top six, three of which came against Daegu FC. Choi Yongsoo's side failed to beat the top two even once, losing all three matches to Jeonbuk and picking up just one point against Ulsan. However, Seoul are unbeaten against both Daegu and Gangwon with four wins and two draws, but have an even record with Pohang having won one, drawn one, and lost one. Since 2014, FC Seoul have a good post-split record with 11 wins, 9 draws and five defeats, including last season when the capital club lost just twice but still ended up in the relegation playoff place.

Total: 19 points

Daegu FC

Daegu are unbeaten in Jeonju this season with a draw and a win.
Unlike FC Seoul, Daegu FC have had a good record against the top two this season having taken four points from Jeonbuk thanks to the opening day draw and the win in Jeonju just a few weeks before the split, and three draws with Ulsan. However, Daegu lost all three matches to Seoul by two goals to one and so will have to rectify this if the Sky Blues are to qualify for the ACL, especially if it comes down to the final day of the season as the two teams meet at DGB Daegu Bank Park. But, against Pohang and Gangwon, Andre's side have accumulated 14 points and are unbeaten against these two teams this term. Daegu have five wins, six draws and four losses but have accumulated the most points out of any of the ACL candidates.

Total: 21 points

Pohang Steelers

A third East Coast Derby win in 2019 could have a huge say on which way the K League title goes.
The Steelers' record against the current top six is boosted by two wins over Ulsan Hyundai in the East Coast Derby, both of which came at home. The pair meet again in the final day when Ulsan may well be looking for a result to seal the title. Pohang picked up just a point against Jeonbuk in three meetings, likewise with Daegu, and just three points against Gangwon. Against Seoul, the team Pohang need to beat to claim third, Kim Kidong's men have one win, one draw and one loss.

Total: 15 points

Gangwon FC

Gangwon, lead by Kim Byungsoo, have failed to win their last four heading into the Final Round.
Gangwon have endured a poor record against Ulsan and Daegu in 2019. Kim Byungsoo's men will need to beat the Sky Blues if they are to narrow the gap between themselves and fourth at the very least. However, the Chuncheon-based side so have a good record against Pohang with two wins. That said, given the injuries to key players, and poor records against two of the three teams above them, Gangwon will be rank outsiders for third place.

Total: 14 points


Based on results against the teams in the current top six, Daegu would be third on 21 points, followed by FC Seoul on 19, Pohang on 15 and Gangwon on 14. Daegu, though, have a four point gap to make up, and have lost to Seoul three times this season. FC Seoul are in the driving seat and will need to pick up a win away to Gangwon on 20th October. That afternoon Daegu take on Ulsan who they have taken points off before so nothing other than a win will do for Seoul to set the tone for the rest of the Final Round matches. Since 2014, only two teams have overcome points gaps of more than four and that was due to the collapse of the team in third.

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