K League-leading Ulsan enjoying front-runner status ahead of season’s final stretch

SEOUL, With Ulsan Hyundai FC closing in on their second straight title in South Korean football, head coach Hong Myung-bo said Wednesday he is enjoying being chased.

Ulsan sit atop the K League 1 tables with 67 points after 33 matches, nine ahead of Pohang Steelers with five matches to go.

After 33 matches, the 12 teams in the K League 1 were divided into two groups. The top six ended up in Final A, and the rest were paired into Final B. Clubs will now each play five more matches, one against every other team within their own group, to finish out the season.

Coaches and players for the top-six clubs in the K League 1 pose for photos next to the K League 1 championship trophy during the media day in Seoul on Oct. 18, 2023. Players in the back row, left to right: Lee Keun-ho of Daegu FC, Ahn Young-kyu of Gwangju FC, Kim Kee-hee of Ulsan Hyundai FC, Kim Seung-dae of Pohang Steelers, Kim Jin-su of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Oh Ban-suk of Incheon United. Coaches in the front row, left to right: Choi Won-kwon of Daegu FC, Lee Jung-hyo of Gwangju FC, Hong Myung-bo of Ulsan Hyundai FC, Kim Gi-dong of Pohang Steelers, Valeriu Bordeanu of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Cho Sung-hwan of Incheon United

The top half-dozen clubs gathered in Seoul on Wednesday for the Final A media day, each represented by their head coach and one player.

Hong, who coached Ulsan to the top last year for their first title in 17 years, said he wants to do something no other Ulsan bench boss has done before: repeat as K League champions.

"Every match is going to be important from here and on, and our biggest goal is to add one more star above the crest on our left chest," Hong said. "Every opponent in Final A will be a threat, but we went through this the last couple of years. I think we'll have the bull's-eye on our back, and everyone else will be targeting us. But we'll build on our experience from last year."

Ulsan will open the final stretch against Gwangju FC, an upstart club that stunned Ulsan 2-0 on Sept. 3.

"They have no pressure and have nothing to lose. I think they're going to be in a pretty good mindset," Hong said. "So it won't be an easy match for us, but we'd like to wrap up the title as quickly as we can. The best-case scenario would be to get it done within the first couple of matches."

Ulsan Hyundai FC head coach Hong Myung-bo speaks during the media day for the top six teams in the K League 1 in Seoul on Oct. 18, 2023

Mathematically, only Pohang and Gwangju FC, in third place with 54 points, have a chance to catch Ulsan. Pohang head coach Kim Gi-dong said his club has been steadily improving and he doesn't want the progress to come to a halt at the most important juncture of the season.

"We'll have to beat Ulsan to make something happen toward the end," Kim said of the east coast regional derby scheduled for Nov. 12. "Our supporters always want us to beat Ulsan, and a derby like this helps the league overall too. We'll go all-in on that match and see what happens."

Pohang captain Kim Seung-dae, sounding almost resigned, said the team's primary goal is to stay in second place, though he will still enjoy trying to chase down the defending champions.

"I think being chased is much more difficult than chasing. This is not so hard on us," Kim said with a smile. "We're going to try to push them until the end."

Ulsan captain Kim Kee-hee admitted Pohang are the one team that could foil Ulsan's repeat bid but added: "We enjoy having someone chasing us. We love wearing the crown on the top of our head, and we don't take this lightly."

Pohang Steelers head coach Kim Gi-dong speaks during the media day for the top six teams in the K League 1 in Seoul on Oct. 18, 2023

Gwangju FC have been a Cinderella story in 2023, soaring to third place with five wins in their last six matches during their first season following promotion from the second-tier K League 2.

"We've all grown so much this year, the club, players and myself," Gwangju coach Lee Jung-hyo said. "And we've made a lot of noise along the way, and we want to continue to make noise in the final stretch."

Lee's captain, Ahn Yong-kyu, chimed in: "We're excited to be in Final A, but we're not satisfied with this. We want to keep getting better and make our supporters happy."

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, a perennial contender with seven league titles between 2014 and 2021, find themselves on the outside looking in, stuck in fourth place with 49 points.

Assistant coach Valeriu Bordeanu, in attendance for ailing head coach Dan Petrescu, said he was "glad" that no other coach considered Jeonbuk much of a threat over the next five rounds of matches.

"Surprise can happen," the Romanian coach said. "We face some difficult moments, and we're very happy to be in the top six. We hope to reach as high as possible in the tables in the final five matches."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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