PREVIEW: K-League relegation battle heats up

With Jeonbuk Hyundai having clinched the K-League Classic, the focus now shifts to the relegation split as teams look to avoid the drop to next season’s K-League Challenge. In the league’s current format, last place in the split (12th overall) will be automatically relegated to the second division, while 11th overall will contest a promotion-relegation playoff with the second-place finisher in Challenge. The split-season format is not without its critics but provides no shortage of late-season drama.

With two matches remaining, ninth-placed Sangju Sangmu are only five points ahead of last-place Gwangju FC. The military side are equal on points and goal difference with Incheon United, but lead on goals scored. In 11th are Jeonnam Dragons, who sit just one point behind Sangju and Incheon.

Gwangju are in an unfavourable situation with 30 points, but still have a chance to avoid direct relegation. The team seems to have finally adjusted to head coach Kim Hak Bum’s tactics; they are undefeated in their last three matches, which has created a positive and hopeful vibe despite the team’s situation.

Jeonnam, on the other hand, are in the worst form possible with a winless streak that stretches back 12 matches. The good news for them, if there is any to be found, is that is that both Sangju and Incheon are also riding winless streaks of 6 and 7 matches, respectively.

As a result, the last two rounds will be crucial. Gwangju arguably have the toughest schedule, playing against Daegu FC away and Pohang Steelers at home. While neither of those opponents are in danger of relegation, both are in good form and will want to keep their pride by being the top team of the bottom split. Furthermore, Gwangju have already sustained three losses to Pohang this season.

Incheon probably have the most favourable schedule, facing Jeonnam away and Sangju home. As Incheon have managed just one draw and two losses against Jeonnam this season, their opponents’ slump could not be coming at a better time. An undefeated record of two wins and one draw against Sangju will give fans room for optimism.

Whoever finishes in the second relegation spot will take on either Asan Mugunghwa or Seongnam FC, who will face off in the promotion semi-final on November 15. Whoever wins the promotion-relegation playoff will join Gyeongnam FC, who clinched their first Challenge title with an overwhelming 79 points, in the Classic.

By Jeongho Seo, Football Tribe Korea