Almost two months have passed since the K League became the first major football competition to kick off post-COVID, and while the Bundesliga came next, it has now closed its curtain on the 2019-20 season.
Most other leagues are only just getting started, with players getting back up to the required fitness levels. The Korean league is, therefore, approaching its halfway point and its players are almost at peak fitness, with nine rounds of football behind them and fatigue yet to appear.
The table is now starting to take shape, with Rashid Mahazi’s Incheon looking dead certs for relegation, as they sit rooted to the bottom, winless and with only two points to their name.
Sitting just above them are surprise strugglers FC Seoul from the capital, who did manage to beat Incheon at the weekend, 1-0. But they are in desperate need of a change, and with rumours of Sven Goran Eriksson being courted to become manager, they may well get a mid-season boost in their battle against relegation.
Adam Taggart’s Suwon Bluewings have been a surprisingly inconsistent side, while he has also struggled to re-produce his goal-scoring form from last season as they sit in the lower half of the table.
Brandon O’Neill’s Pohang Steelers have looked stronger, only losing three times and along with Daegu are probably the best of the rest.
However, there is a huge gap emerging between second and third as Ulsan Hyundai and Jeonbuk Motors are streets ahead of the other ten teams and appear to be engaged in a two-horse race for the title.
Ulsan are by far the more exciting team, as they’ve outscored Jeonbuk by four goals. While Jeonbuk thrives on its organisation, as they have the meanest defence, only conceding four goals in nine games.
The two rivals faced off on Sunday night in a top of the table clash in Ulsan, and it certainly lived up to its billing as a contrast of styles, with Ulsan throwing everything at Jeonbuk, while Jeonbuk looked to dictate play with a slower pace.
Ulsan had the early exchanges as they passed it around the back line before a failed cross-field ball surrendered possession to the champions, from then on Jeonbuk took control and saw a free kick in a promising area easily dealt with by the Ulsan defence in the third minute
Rough play by Kim Tae-hwan, the Ulsan vice-captain, saw a second free kick, this time on the Jeonbuk left, also easily dealt with. Hwan arguing with the referee and Ulsan were starting to show signs that discipline may be a problem.
Ulsan did have the first chance of the match when a free kick from the right was headed just wide of the Jeonbuk goal on 15 minutes by Lee Keun-ho.
However, the game turned on a moment of madness in the 25th minute when Kim Kee-hee saw red as he lost control of his body and committed a dangerous tackle on the Korean International Kim Bo-kyung, who was carried off on a stretcher and replaced by the Brazilian Murilo.
It then seemed inevitable that the Jeonbuk machine would wear down Ulsan and gain their trademark 1-0 win. It just took one moment where Ulsan switched off, and a quickly taken free kick was received well by Kim Kee-hee, whose first touch gave him an extra couple of seconds and he could then slam his shot across the Korean international stopper Jo Hyeon-woo and into the far corner for his fourth goal of the campaign.
Ulsan had their chances in the second half but they didn’t pull the trigger at the right moment. Then in injury time, their Japanese star, Takahiro Kunimoto, scored a fine solo effort running past tired Ulsan defenders to secure the win and Jeonbuk now look odds-on to retain their title, and win their sixth title in seven years as they sit four points clear of Ulsan.