The final round of the 2023 K League 1 season is upon us. Fierce competition between the top teams is expected.
Match of the Round – ‘Gwangju vs. Ulsan’, a battle for the top spot
The first match of the Final Round, Round 34, pits third-place Gwangju against Ulsan, who are looking for their first back-to-back titles in franchise history. The hosts are on a roll with seven wins, two draws, and one loss in their last 10 matches, and are full of confidence after a 2-0 victory over Ulsan in their last meeting on September 29. Gwangju has achieved some pleasing records this season, including the most wins in the club’s history in K League 1 and the most wins against former K League 1 clubs, and will be looking to keep the momentum going in the final round. Gwangju will be led by the return of Hangzhou Asian Games gold medalist Jung Ho-yeon and Lee Sun-min, who was recently called up to the A-Match squad.
“Gwangju has grown, and our players have grown a lot,” said Lee Jung-hyo at the Final Round media day on April 18. I’ve grown too,” he said, adding, “We came here (to the Final A) loud and furious. We want to be loud in Final A. I think we need to talk a little bit more about how far we’re going to go. We will make noise every game.”
The visitors have been at the top of the standings all season, but have faltered a bit in their last 10 games with three wins, five draws and two losses. In their last two matches, they were held to 0-0 draws against Pohang and Incheon, showing a frustrating lack of offense. However, Ulsan is still in a good position to win the league title, as they have nine points ahead of second-place Pohang and are the only team in the 12-team K League 1 to reach the 20-win plateau this season. Meanwhile, Ulsan will have to rely on the fitness of its players as many of its key players, including goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo, Seol Young-woo, Uhm Won-sang, Kim Young-kwon, Jung Seung-hyun, and Kim Tae-hwan, will be available from this match after being deployed to the Asian Games and A-Match.
Ulsan head coach Hong Myung-bo said at the final round media day, “It’s a road no one has traveled before, so it’s hard to see, but we’ll do our best until the end. Every game is important. Our main goal is to add one more star to our left chest.”
The match between Gwangju and Ulsan will take place on Saturday, June 21 at 2 p.m. at the Gwangju Football Stadium.
□ Team of the Round – Incheon aims for a trifecta
This season, Incheon was at the bottom of the league until early August, but rebounded from mid-August to finish sixth and advance to the Final A for the second consecutive year. At the same time, the club is cruising in the inaugural AFC Champions League with back-to-back wins over Yokohama F.Marinos and Kaya FC, and has reached the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Incheon will be looking to continue their good form in K League 1, which resumes this week.
At the Final Round Media Day on the 18th, head coach Cho Sung-hwan said, “It’s a great honor for me personally to attend the Final A Media Day. We could not be here without the support of our fans. Before the season, we set out to break through our limits and have fun, but we have a long journey ahead of us, so we’ll focus even more on achieving our goals. We will play well for the rest of the season so that our fans can enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, Incheon’s first opponent in the final round is Pohang. The two teams are evenly matched in their last five matches, with two wins, two draws, and one loss, and Pohang has a slight lead in the head-to-head record this season with two wins and one loss.
However, while Incheon has recently benefited from the presence of foreign forwards such as Mugosa, Gerso, and Hernandez, Pohang will be without two of their key players, Oberdan and Wandelsson, due to injury. The first leg of the final round between Incheon and Pohang will take place on Friday, May 20 at 7:30 p.m. at Pohang Steel Yard.
□ Player of the Round – Go Jae-hyun (Daegu), who will try to score double digits for the second consecutive year안전놀이터
Daegu’s Go Jae-hyun scored 13 goals and added two assists last season, making him a key player in the team. This season, he hasn’t let up, scoring nine goals and one assist in 32 appearances, making him the team’s top scorer. He needs just one more goal to reach double digits for the second year in a row.
Go’s scoring has been even better of late. He scored a multi-goal game against Jeonbuk in Round 32 to clinch Daegu’s Final A spot, and then scored the game-winner against Suwon FC in Round 33, marking his second straight game with a goal. For his recent performances, Ko was nominated for the September Player of the Month award.
Daegu will face Jeonbuk in the second round. Daegu has a 2-1 record against Jeonbuk this season, and Go has fond memories of his last multi-goal performance against Jeonbuk. The first meeting between Daegu and Jeonbuk in the Final Round will take place on Saturday, April 21 at 4:30 p.m. at DGB Daegu Bank Park.
Daegu head coach Choi Won-kwon said, “I feel honored to be in the Final A thanks to the fans. Last year, when we were fighting for relegation, our first goal was the Final A. I am so grateful. I know the coaches and teams here are strong teams, but we will work hard until the end and give the fans the international flight they want.”