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What's already decided and what's up for grabs in K League 1 post-split?

A team-by-team look at what's decided, up for grabs or on the line between now and the end of the 2023 Hana 1Q K League 1 season.
Which teams exactly will be competing in Final A and Final B was decided with the conclusion of Round 33 before the international break. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' 2-0 win over FC Seoul meant it was the Green Warriors who clinched Final A and not the capital club. 

Now, with five more rounds to go, the 2023 K League 1 season is truly at the business end of things, and very little has been decided. The title is still up for grabs, none of the ACL spots are clinched, and five of the six teams in Final B are not mathematically safe.

Final A

Ulsan Hyundai - K League 1 title

The title race isn't done yet but it could be soon. Ulsan Hyundai have a nine-point cushion over Pohang Steelers meaning the Horangi could seal the title with three or even two games to spare. Ulsan recorded a first K League title in 17 years last year and, should Hong Myung-bo's men win the league again this year, it will be the first time that Ulsan have won back-to-back titles in their history. 

In doing so, Ulsan would join an elite group of clubs that have managed to win league titles in consecutive seasons. Only three other clubs have managed to do that - Ilhwa Chunma (modern-day Seongnam FC), from 1993 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2003, Suwon Bluewings in 1998 and 1999, and Jeonbuk in 2014 and 2015 and from 2017 to 2021.

Ulsan have struggled for form of late though and so how they acquit themselves in the first couple of matches could set the tone for the rest of Final A.

Pohang Steelers - Runner-up spot

Of course, Pohang won't be giving up on the title until it's mathematically not possible to win. But what looks most likely is for Kim Gi-dong's men is that the Steelers seal runner-up spot, which will be their highest finish since they won the league in 2013. Finishing second also means a place in the playoffs of the ACLE, the new top-tier AFC Champions League competition. Pohang are only four points above Gwangju in third, though, and so sealing second might not happen until Round 37.

Gwangju FC - ACL qualification 

Due to what's already been a superb first season back in the top flight, Gwangju FC are on course to qualify for the ACL for the first time in their history. Lee Jung-hyo and his team are also seemingly set to record a best-ever finish for the club. In 2020 under Park Jin-sub, Gwangju finished sixth but this season with a six-point cushion over sixth place heading into Final A, the Griffins could set a new club record as early as Round 36 given their super goals-scored tally. Gwangju could also be only the fourth citizen club to qualify for the AFC Champions League through league positioning following Gyeongnam in 2018, Daegu FC in 2020, and Incheon United in 2022.

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Daegu FC, Incheon United - Complicated ACL race

Qualification for continental football next season is a bit different. The K League 1 champions and FA Cup winners will qualify for the Group Stage of the AFC Champions League Elite (ACLE), while the K League 1 runners-up will qualify for the playoffs. Third place in K League 1 will qualify for AFC Champions League 2, basically the Europa League of Asia. What makes this more complicated is the fact that Pohang and Jeonbuk are in the semifinals of the FA Cup and so should either of these two teams win the cup, fourth could be enough for ACL2. 

With Jeonbuk and Daegu locked on 49 points and Incheon just one point behind, the race for would could be a final ACL spot could not be any closer. 

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Final B

FC Seoul - Safety secured; Super Match clean sweep next?

FC Seoul, sitting 16 points clear of 10th, are safe so what is left for the capital club to play for? The players will be wanting to finish the season strongly but perhaps what's being looked forward to the most from the supporters' point of view is the Round 37 Super Match. Seoul have gone unbeaten against the rivals before but never have they recorded four wins from four in the league.

Daejeon Hana Citizen - K League 1 safety

Daejeon aren't safe yet but the Purples have a 14-point lead over Suwon FC in the first relegation playoff spot and so should they beat the Castle Park side in Round 34, safety will be secured. In fact, even a draw would be enough. Both of Daejeon's last two K League 1 campaigns ended in relegation - 2013 and 2015 - and so top-flight survival will be a feat that hasn't been seen at Purple Arena in over a decade. Plus, Tiago is in the golden boot race, sitting just one goal behind Joo Min-kyu in second, and Lee Jin-hyun and Leandro are in the race for top assist maker.

Jeju United - Islanders dragged into the relegation battle

With just a four-point gap between the Islanders and 10th spot, Jeju have well and truly been dragged into the relegation battle. It's the result of a disastrous run of form that has seen the now manager-less side win just two in 20 league matches. Four straight losses and with Suwon FC picking up the odd point here and there, means Jeju are in a perilous position.

Suwon FC - Survival still possible

Suwon FC look as though they will have enough in them to finish 10th and avoid being relegated automatically. But with Jeju dragged into the mire as well, Suwon will feel as though they have it in them to claw their way out of the bottom three and into safety. The two teams actually play each other on the last day and it could be a winner-takes-all affair.

Gangwon FC, Suwon Bluewings - Avoiding automatic relegation

Gangwon FC and Suwon Bluewings are fighting it out to avoid finishing bottom and falling through the trap door automatically. Both Gangwon and Suwon have come through relegation playoffs unscathed before, the former in 2021 and the latter just last year, and so will be confident of doing the same should they avoid finishing bottom. Gangwon are only one point above the Bluewings and the two meet on the final day.

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What happens after Final A & B?

The playoffs, although the dates have not yet been announced. The team that finishes 11th in K League 1 will play a two-leg promotion-relegation playoff with the K League 2 runners-up. Last season, this was contested between Gimcheon Sangmu and Daejeon Hana Citizen with the latter earning promotion. 

In addition, 10th in K League 1 will play the winner of third versus fourth/fifth in K League 2. Third in K League 2 gets a bye to a semifinal of sorts and await the winner of fourth versus fifth. The winner of that one-leg contest then plays 10th in K League 2. Last year this was FC Anyang who lost in extra time to Suwon Bluewings.

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