This year's regular season of the Korea Republic K-League came to a dramatic finale, with Suwon Samsung Bluewings clinching pole position thanks to a 3-1 win against Incheon United on Sunday. FC Seoul, who narrowly finished runners-up on goal difference, also secured a ticket to next season's AFC Champions League by virtue of a 2-1 victory over reigning champions Pohang Steelers.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for Suwon. Despite finishing the first half of the season with an impressive 13-game unbeaten run, including an unprecedented 11-match winning streak, Cha Bum-Kun's side suffered back-to-back defeats in July before losing all three of their games in September. To add insult to injury, Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma snatched first place when the Bluewings went down 5-2 at home to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
In the meantime, their archrivals FC Seoul were quietly and closely chasing the leading pack. After a 2-0 home reverse at home to Suwon in April, Senol Gunes' men marched on for 19 matches without defeat, beating both Seongnam and Suwon by a single goal to top the table in October. But in the subsequent, penultimate round, Seoul gave up their lead by losing 2-0 at struggling Busan I'Park, while Suwon reclaimed the summit with a 3-0 win over Korean FA Cup holders Chunnam Dragons.
It was an emotional finish for Suwon coach Cha Bum-Kun, whose side finished runners-up in the two previous seasons. "
Unwelcome break for leaders
As Cha pointed out, the complicated system and loose schedule of the six-team play-offs worked against the leaders last season. Suwon will have to wait for more than three weeks until the home-and-away series begins on 3 December. And they must be well prepared, if the Bluewings are not to follow the footsteps of Seongnam, who lost the series 4-1 on aggregate at the hands of fifth-placed Pohang despite winning the regular season last year. Suwon also fell victim to the Steelers, going down 1-0 at home in the semi-final.
Pohang finished fifth again this season, and will face fourth-placed Ulsan Hyundai Horangi, whom they beat 2-0 to advance to the semi-final a year ago. Pohang coach Sergio Farias seems to have the knack for winning the trophy. "It's time to write another chapter of history," claimed the Brazilian. "We know each other so well and we have two weeks to prepare for the trip to Ulsan. In fact, every team who qualified for the play-offs has a chance, and every game is important."
Meanwhile, third-placed Seongnam will welcome Jeonbuk, who dramatically secured sixth place by coming from behind to beat Gyeongnam FC 3-1 at home on Sunday. Seongnam will be hoping to redeem themselves in the finals series this time around, but will not have forgotten their 2-1 home defeat by Jeonbuk on the penultimate matchday.
The winners of the first play-off round will do battle for a place in the semi-final in Seoul, as well as the third and last ticket to the Asian Champions League allotted to the K-League.
K-League: Finals series
Saturday 22 November
Match 1: Ulsan Hyundai Horangi v Pohang Steelers
Sunday 23 November
Match 2: Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma v Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors
Wednesday 26 November
Match 3: Winner Match 1 v Winner Match 2
Sunday 30 November
FC Seoul v Winner Match 3
Wednesday 3 December
Winner Semi-final v Suwon Samsung Bluewings
Sunday 7 December
Suwon Samsung Bluewings v Winner Semi-final