The revamping of the K-League’s title-deciding play-off format in 2007 was designed to give greater advantage to teams based on their regular-season finishing positions. It has succeeded. Indeed in three of the subsequent four editions – and in each of the past three - the round robin table toppers have emerged as the overall champions.
That will not, however, dissuade FC Seoul and Ulsan Horangi. Tomorrow, the pair will square off, with the winners moving on to encounter the Suwon Bluewings-Busan I’ Park victors in the second round. The winners of that match will then meet regular-season runners-up Pohang Steelers for the right to face Jeonbuk Motors in the overall final. So, while Jeonbuk have one match to win and Pohang two to became K-League kings, Seoul, Ulsan, Suwon and Busan must negotiate four fixtures to get their hands on the trophy.
Seoul finished the regular season in third, three places and 12 points above Ulsan, and will therefore boast home advantage in their first-round clash. Encouragingly, the capital outfit are unbeaten in their last five games against their upcoming opponents and have won their last seven contests in front of their own fans, largely thanks to the prolificacy of 23-goal Montenegrin Dejan Damjanovic – seven clear atop of the K-League scoring chart – and the creativity of Colombian set-piece specialist Mauricio Molina.
Ulsan will be buoyed by an eight-match unbeaten sequence which propelled them into the play-offs and, against a side with such enviable firepower, the fact that no team conceded fewer goals in the regular season. Key to that statistic were the performances of captain and centre-back Kwak Tae-Hwi, who was also Ulsan’s top scorer on just seven goals, 20 less than Damjanovic.
The stage is set for a battle between attack and defence.
“Ulsan have a solid defence and a lot of good players as well,” said Seoul’s caretaker coach Choi Yong Soo. “But we'll break down their rearguard with attacking football, from the kick-off until the final whistle, while preparing for their counter-attacks and set-pieces.
“Our players have the ability, passion and fighting spirit, not to mention their flamboyant style of play. We're not under pressure, and we’re hoping the match is going to be a feast for the football family. We cannot afford to lose at home, and we're prepared for success.”
Ulsan coach Kim Ho Gon commented: “We struggled in the first half of the season when we had problems scoring, but the players were determined to qualify for the play-offs and they finally did it.
"The whole season is down to this crucial match. It is a battle between the spear and the shield. We've always thought we're going to win the championship, and I believe in my players. We must win.”