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5 must-see games in K League 1 this month

July is a huge month in the 2023 season as each team is now at the halfway point of their campaign. There are potentially season-defining clashes at both ends of the table, so we look at five crucial games in five different stadiums, and why you should consider going.

According to Futbology, there were nine users at FC Seoul's dour 0-0 draw with Daejeon Hana Citizen at World Cup Stadium last Saturday. The majority of those were German, and fans of Hansa Rostock. Now that most European leagues have completed their season, this is a great chance for fans to experience a game in Korea, and across East Asia if they have the funds.

The current K League 1 table shows holders Ulsan Hyundai sitting top with an enormous 13-point lead after just 20 games. To many fans, the championship race is as good as over but thankfully, this weekend, there's an opportunity for their closest rivals to close the gap and, perhaps, extend the title race into the autumn.

Current K League 1 standings courtesy of www.kleagueunited.com

At the other end of the table, Gangwon FC and Suwon Bluewings are cut adrift at the bottom but with only one team automatically going down, it means the battle to avoid 12th will be intense. FA Cup semi-finalists and AFC Champions League qualifiers Incheon United are not safe just yet.

And, in the middle, just two points separate Jeonbuk Motors in 4th from Daegu FC in 8th. A run of form is vital for these clubs, not just to finish in the top half when the league splits in October, but for their AFC Champions League aspirations. 

For fans hoping to attend a K League 1 game this month, we list five huge games in five different stadiums, starting with this weekend's Donghae Derby.

FNR

Pohang Steelers v Ulsan Hyundai


When is the game? 

Pohang versus Ulsan is the early game on Saturday, July 8th with an 18:00 kick-off. The game will take place at Pohang Steelyard, a legendary ground in Korean football.

Why is it important? 

For starters, this is one of the biggest derbies in the country. Ulsan will travel 65 km north along the East coast knowing three points will, likely, distinguish any hope Pohang has of catching their great rivals. The Steelers won the last of their 5 championships after an epic 96th-minute winner in Munsu to pip Ulsan in 2013.

After losing three straight, Pohang is unbeaten in four against Ulsan, but blew a 2-0 lead in Munsu earlier this season. There hasn't been a 0-0 draw between these two teams in over seven years and both have endured some heavy losses against their rivals. 

Ulsan is currently top having dropped just 10 points from a possible 60. The defending champions boast an incredible +23 goal difference, helped by the league's top two scorers. Pohang, meanwhile, is second on 37 points. They've lost one game more than Ulsan but seven draws in 20 games means they're closer to Daegu in 8th than Ulsan in first.

How's the stadium? 

Amazing. Saturday's game will sell out and the 17,000-capacity Steelyard will be rocking to its foundations if the home team sends Ulsan home with no points. The stadium opened in 1990 and is located in a small forest behind POSCO factories and freight train lines. The atmosphere, both inside the ground and in the surrounding area, is unrivaled for a big game. 

The game will almost certainly sell out (at the time of writing only 1,000 tickets remain) so book early to avoid disappointment.

Pohang Steelyard is a national treasure. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)

Suwon FC v Incheon United


When is the game? 

One hour after Pohang and Ulsan kick off in the Steelyard, Suwon FC welcomes Incheon United to the Suwon Stadium. Saturday, July 8th.

Why is it important? 

A fixture with ramifications at the foot of the table, although Incheon United probably didn't expect to be in this situation after a brilliant 2022. Realistically, with a Cup semi-final and an AFC qualifier looming, Incheon can't afford to drop points in Suwon as their sights will be on other prizes. Suwon FC goes into the game knowing a win will close the gap to only one point. All to play for.

These two teams love a draw in this fixture - especially a 2-2 score - and this game has tie written all over it. Suwon's last home win over Incheon was back in 2016 but their home form in 2023 has been decent, collecting 14 of their 19 points on home turf. Their defensive record, however, is abysmal.

Luckily for Suwon, Incheon's attack is blunt so they might not take advantage of that porous defense, despite boasting some exciting attacking options. Incheon is hard to beat but tops the league in draws (8) and their 19 goals in 20 games is a very poor return. Suwon's Lars Veldwijk is in great form and his 13 goal contributions (8 goals and 5 assists) are the best in the division.

How's the stadium? 

Mediocre. The 11,000-capacity multi-use arena opened way back in 1971. There is one small temporary stand behind the goals for the main supporters' club but the majority of match-going fans will be seated in the unspectacular concrete bowl sweeping around the track. The floodlights, recently renovated, dominate the skyline but there's really nothing to get excited about here. The intrigue will be on the pitch only.

This game will not sell out, despite the importance to both teams, and tickets can be purchased through the Interpark app.

Suwon Stadium during the Covid years for a derby game with the Bluewings. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)

Jeju United v Gwangju FC


When is the game? 

Okay, the date is hardly ideal for groundhoppers or casual fans as the match kicks off at 19:30 on Tuesday, July 11th, but if you are on the island that week, this is a must-see game.

Why is important?

Jeju United (5th) and Gwangju FC (7th) are separated by a single point but have similar records this season. They have eight wins each and Gwangju's goal difference of +3 is one better than Jeju's. There's very little to split the clubs from Pohang Steelers in second to Daegu FC in 8th so a good run of form can push a team toward the summit. Conversely, by losing a couple of games in succession, an underperforming team will rapidly drop out of the top half.

Jeju won the corresponding fixture 1-0 in Gwangju but historically, games between these two underdog teams have been close even if Jeju has the upper hand. Only once since 2015 has a fixture been decided by more than 1 goal. Recent history is against the visitors, who haven't won in Seogwipo since 2016.

Both teams come into this game on the back of a recent defeat but Jeju's form is a much bigger concern. They've lost 3 of their last 5 in the league but shocked the country when taking the considerable scalp of Ulsan in the FA Cup. Gwangju produced one of the best performances of the season when they dismantled Jeonbuk Motors in late June, but, since then, they were trashed by Jeonbuk in the Cup before losing narrowly at home to runaway leaders, Ulsan.

How's the stadium?

Beautiful. This one is a personal favorite of mine and I'd like to visit at least once a season if flight prices were cheaper. Jeju hosted three games at the 2002 World Cup and after slight modifications, the ground is still in good shape with a ridiculously impressive roof over the main stand. There is a good view of Halla-san and the nearby city of Seogwipo is a great location for pre-match local beers and food.

Jeju United tickets on sold through the Ticketlink app and website.

The roof over the main stand is a thing of beauty in Jeju. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)

Daejeon Hana Citizen v Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors

When is the game?

Wednesday, July 12th at 19:30. Admittedly, the midweek games aren't ideal but this should be a cracker.

Why is important?

Similar to the game above, the race for a top-six spot is intense and every team can't afford to drop points against rivals, especially at home. Jeonbuk has a deeper squad than most in the league and recently hired a high-caliber manager, so the smart money would be on the Jeonju-based side to really power up the table in the second half of the season.

For the past seven seasons, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors hoovered up K League trophies whereas Daejeon toiled away in the second tier. When they met in April (Daejeon recorded a famous 2-1 victory) it was their first league meeting since 2015. Jeonbuk hasn't played a league game in Daejeon since July of that year, so hopefully the midweek schedule doesn't deter too many of their fans.

For most of this season, Jeonbuk was in crisis mode but the recent hiring of Romanian legend Dan Petescu and a good run of form before his arrival has steadied the ship. They won't win the League but a top 2 finish is a possibility. Mid-table Daejeon should be safe from relegation worries on their return to K League 1, so the focus will now be on securing a coveted top 6 spot.

How's the stadium?

One of six World Cup stadiums currently in use in K League 1, Daejeon's probably lacks the character of, say, Suwon or Jeju, but it is a beautiful stadium nonetheless with excellent views of the pitch from any seat in the house. The 40,000-capacity is too big for a K League club but Daejeon has a good following and they're clearly enjoying their return to the top flight.

Daejeon Hana Citizen tickets are sold through their website.

Expect a good atmosphere in Daejeon as the locals celebrate an overdue K League adventure. (Image: instagram.com/groundhopping_korea)

Gangwon FC v Suwon Bluewings


When is the game?

Saturday, July 22nd at 19:30. This game will take place in Gangneung, not their nominal home ground in Chuncheon.

Why is important?

A relegation six-pointer. The biggest game in Suwon Bluewings' short but successful history? Perhaps a touch overdramatic but given Suwon is staring down the barrel of a first-ever relegation, they simply can not afford to drop points to the only team in sight. Gangwon fans might differ, but the Bluewings' plight is the season's biggest story of interest. Of course, by the time this game takes place, the table could look very different but given the form of both clubs this season, that's unlikely.

Gangwon is in 11th and, at the time of writing, had scored just 12 goals in 20 games this season. This is obviously relegation form but keeping them from the bottom spot is an even more dysfunctional Bluewing outfit. Gangwon, like Suwon, has changed manager to arrest a worrying slide towards the second tier.

Suwon remains rooted in 12th, beaten 14 times in 20 games, and unable to go more than one game without losing. It has been truly horrendous. However, in their two meetings so far this term, the Bluewings have collected 4 points (games against Gangwon have accounted for 40% of Suwon's total points this season) and Gangwon hasn't won a match since round 10. Yikes.

How's the stadium?

Uninspiring. Gangwon FC is the only team in the league with two home grounds because they represent the entire Gangwon province. They have used the city of Chuncheon so far but will now temporarily relocate to the coastal town of Gangneung. The two grounds are similar; locally owned concrete bowls with a running track. It isn't pretty but at least the beach is nearby.

Gangwon FC sells tickets through Interpark.

Gangneung Stadium, alternative home of Gangwon FC (Image: Paul Neat instagram.com/neatpaul)


Note: The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing (July 5th). If, for example, Suwon Bluewings win every game between now and their showdown in Gangneung, please pretend their season is still on the verge of complete disaster.

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