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K League 1 Final Day Preview: Survival, ACL, Golden Boot up for grabs

With a captivating and enthralling relegation battle still undecided, the 2023 Hana 1Q K League 1 final day looks set to be one of the most dramatic in recent memory. Gangwon FC travel to Big Bird to take on Suwon Samsung Bluewings in something of a winner-takes-all affair, the golden boot is up for grabs, as too two of the AFC Champions League places.

The title was sewn up weeks ago and Pohang Steelers, with a win over Daegu FC in Round 37, have sealed second place but which teams finish in third and fourth is still undecided.

In the bottom half of the table, with just a point separating Gangwon FC in 10th and Suwon Bluewings in 12th, any of the current bottom three could go down automatically.

Final A

ACL Race

#ULSvJEO: Ulsan Hyundai (1st) vs. (4th) Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Sunday 2 PM

The so-called "Hyundai derby" won't mean an awful lot to Ulsan having already sealed the title weeks ago but for Jeonbuk, it'll be about securing a place in the AFC Champions League. There are three potential scenarios for the Green Warriors: finish third and qualify for the AFC Champions League Elite, finish fourth and secure a place in the ACL2, or finish fifth and qualify for neither. Jeonbuk therefore need to at least match Incheon's result and hope that Pohang do them a favour and hold Gwangju to at most a point for them to finish third. A win would seal fourth regardless of what happens in Jeollanam-do. Ulsan have won two of the three meetings this season, including the most recent and both at the Munsu but Jeonbuk are one of just two teams to be unbeaten in Final A so far.

#DAEvINC: Daegu FC vs. Incheon United, Sunday 2 PM

Sitting in fifth, Incheon United know that ACL qualification for 2024-2025 is out of their hands. The Durumi need to beat Daegu FC away and for Jeonbuk to drop points to move into fourth, and for Pohang to beat Gwangju for them to finish third. Gwangju's superior goals scored tally means that a draw for Lee Jung-hyo's men will have the advantage over Incheon. Incheon make the long trip to Daegu with a long injury list and one that was made worse in midweek. A very young Incheon side beat Yokohama F. Marinos 2-1 on Tuesday night to put them in the driving seat to qualify for the ACL round of 16 but it came at a cost with Kim Bo-seop and Hong Si-woo appearing to pick up injuries. Gerso Fernandes is a major doubt, as too Stefan Mugosa while Harrison Delbridge, Shin Jin-ho, Mun Ji-hwan, and Kim Jun-yub won't be back until next year. It may be an even younger Incheon side that takes to the field at DGB Daegu Bank Park. The only meeting in Daegu this season ended in a 2-2 draw but Incheon won the most recent, 3-1 at home in August.

#GWAvPOH: Gwangju FC vs. Pohang Steelers, Sunday 2 PM

Pohang Steelers have already sealed second place and a place in the knockouts of this season's ACL as well as a place in the 2024-2025 group stage. Sunday's match, then, is more about Gwangju and their surprise bid for ACLE. Gwangju's slender lead over an improving Jeonbuk means that there is basically no margin for error. Anything less than a win at home to Pohang would open the door for the Green Warriors to leapfrog them into third. A win seals it for the Griffins but they head into the math on the back of a three-match winless run and a defeat last time out. But Gwangju have won in this fixture this season, earning a 4-2 victory at home in June. 

Final B

Relegation battle

#SSBvGAN: Suwon Bluewings vs. Gangwon FC, Saturday 2 PM

Suwon Bluewings and Gangwon FC face each other at Big Bird this Saturday in what is undoubtedly the pick of the action in Round 38. It is a monumentally huge game with survival on the line for both teams and could result in one of Korea's most successful clubs in the Bluewings being relegated for the first time. Both sides are on an identical run of form; both started Final B with a defeat, both then drew and then won two on the spin. If the Bluewings win then they move off the foot of the table but into which place they'd go depends on Suwon FC's result against Jeju. If Suwon FC win then the Bluewings will move into 11th, if Suwon FC draw or lose and the Bluewings beat Gangwon then Yeom Ki-hun and his men will finish 10th. Bluewings won the last two meetings with Gangwon, both away from home while the only meeting at Big Bird this season ended in a 1-1 draw. Gangwon's away form was improved by the 1-0 in Daejeon last time out. Before that Gangwon had only managed two away wins in the league and both were against Jeonbuk.

Suwon Bluewings' Maxwell Acosty, speaking to the K League United Podcast this week, says he always knew that it would come down to the final day against Gangwon:

"To be honest with you, I was excited (when seeing the final day fixture). I don't know why but I knew that it will all come down to the last game against Gangwon. That was what was in my mind like 'okay, that'll be fun. Until the last minute, that'll be fun,' you know? So I kind of felt it will all come down to the last game of the season against the team that we need to beat in order to stay in the league. Now that's what's going to happen and we're going to give everything.

"Anything is possible (in front of the Suwon fans) but nothing is guaranteed yet. We had in our minds, probably just me, that we played Suwon FC three times and we lost all three; we never won one time and we went there on the fourth time and we won. Against Seoul, it was the same. We never won there and the fourth time we win. It's the same story with Gangwon, they've never won against us this season and they are coming to our home so we need to be very careful, we don't have to be arrogant because, yes we are playing at home, there'll be massive fans to come and push us, but we don't have to take things light because it's a very, very important game. It's kind of a final, and in the finals everything can happen. Gangwon is playing very good recently, they are in very good form. I know our fans will help us but we need to be very careful with how we approach the game. It's a tricky game but I am sure we'll be ready for it."

Listen to the full interview on the KLU Pod, extended version on Patreon.

#SUWvJEJ: Suwon FC vs. Jeju United

Suwon FC's disastrous run of form is catching up with them, losing three on the bounce and without a win in eight. A 2-0 loss away to Gangwon last time out meant Kim Do-kyun's side slip to 11th and are in serious danger of being relegated automatically. Suwon simply need to get something against Jeju on Saturday. A win would mean the Bluewings' result doesn't matter too much but a draw, coupled with a Bluewings win, would see the city neighbours swap places.

Suwon FC have lost four out of their last five home games, seven out of the last 10, and haven't won on their own patch since May - a 2-0 victory over Gangwon FC. Suwon haven't won in this fixture this season and have shipped eight goals in the three meetings having lost 3-0 on the island in August, 5-0 at home in May; the first meeting back in February ended 0-0. Luckily for Suwon, Jeju's away form is wretched with four losses out of the last five, nine out of the last 10, and no win on their travels since the aforementioned 5-0 victory over Suwon FC in Round 13.

Golden Boot

Joo Min-kyu (17), Ulsan Hyundai (vs. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)

Joo Min-kyu has scored in each of his last two league games for Ulsan to put him top scorer overall and joint-top scorer in Final A. His combined xG post-split so far is 2.09 which is more or less on par meaning he is performing as expected in terms of the chances he gets and puts away. His combined xG against Jeonbuk, Ulsan's opponents this weekend, is 1.33 (0.77, 0.56) from two appearances with no goals but, historically, he has scored nine against Jeonbuk from 17 appearances. If Joo fails to score against Jeonbuk and Tiago draws level with a goal against FC Seoul, it will come down to which player has played less. According to K League's official data source, the K League Data Portal, Joo has played 2,543 minutes compared to Tiago's 2,730. Eight of Joo's 17 goals have come away from home.

Tiago Orobo (16), Daejeon Hana Citizen (vs. FC Seoul) 

Tiago and Daejeon face FC Seoul at home, a side they have beaten on the two previous occasions this season. Tiago has scored six of his 16 goals at home, including two in the same match against FC Seoul earlier in the campaign. His combined xG against FC Seoul is 2.04 (0.99, 0.05, 1.00) while his xG in Final B so far is 1.55 with one goal scored. What might play into Tiago's favour is that it is a young FC Seoul squad that is expected to visit Purple Arena this Saturday, one without Ki Sung-yueng or Osmar through suspension, and has nothing to play for and so it might be a bit of a free hit. Joo Min-kyu on the other hand, doesn't have that luxury with Jeonbuk looking to seal an ACL spot. 


Final A

Kim Jin-su, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (vs. Ulsan Hyundai)
Park Seung-wook, Pohang Steelers (vs. Gwangju FC)
Lee Jin-yong, Daegu FC (vs. Incheon United)

Final B

Yoon Jong-hwan (manager), Gangwon FC (vs. Suwon Bluewings)
Lee Jong-sung, Suwon Samsung Bluewings (vs. Gangwon FC)
Kozuka Kazuki, Suwon Samsung Bluewings (vs. Gangwon FC)
Lee Hyun-sik, Daejeon Hana Citizen (vs. FC Seoul)
Ki Sung-yueng, FC Seoul (vs. Daejeon Hana Citizen)
Osmar Ibanez, FC Seoul (vs. Daejeon Hana Citizen)
Go Yo-han, FC Seoul (vs. Daejeon Hana Citizen)

Back from Suspension

Lee Soon-min, Gwangju FC
Cho Yu-min, Daejeon Hana Citizen
Lee Chung-yong, Ulsan Hyundai
Kim Dong-min, Incheon United

KLU Pod 

K League 1 Final Round Preview, Gimcheon K League 2 Champions & ACL Match Day 5

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Watch the full video on Patreon.

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