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Bunched-up table setting up wild final stretch in K League football

It has mostly been a two-horse race for the South Korean club football title in 2020, but there are intriguing battles elsewhere on the bunched-up table.

Ulsan Hyundai FC are at the top of the K League 1 with 46 points through 19 matches. With eight contests remaining, they lead Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, three-time defending champions, by five points.

Sangju Sangmu are in third place, seven points back. Below them, the middle of the table in the 12-club league gets crowded.

Pohang Steelers trail Sangju by three points in fourth place at 31. Daegu FC are another five points back.

Finishing in the top five has hardly been more important than this year, considering what's at stake for next season.

The K League 1 champion and the South Korean FA Cup winner will qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League for next season. The runner-up and the third-place club in the K League 1 will reach the AFC Champions League playoffs, for a chance to make the group stage.

There are some twists to that setup this year.

Sangju Sangmu may well hold on to finish third, but they won't be eligible to play in the AFC Champions League because they're a military club -- made up of players completing their mandatory service. It means if Sangju end up in third place, then the fourth-place club will instead get to the AFC playoffs.

But what if the fourth-place team also happens to be the FA Cup champion? Then the K League's fifth-ranked team will get to play in the Champions League playoffs.

The FA Cup will have its semifinals on Sept. 23. Three of the four contestants are currently in the top four in the K League: Ulsan, Jeonbuk and Pohang. It's well within the realm of possibility that Pohang could win the FA Cup and end up in fourth place in the K League, allowing whoever finishes fifth to compete in the prestigious and lucrative AFC competition.

That should be more than enough motivation for clubs to claw their way into the top five, even when winning a championship may be realistically out of reach.

After Daegu FC, the next five clubs -- Gangwon FC, Gwangju FC, Seongnam FC, FC Seoul and Busan IPark -- are separated by just one point, occupying places from sixth to 10th.

The goals scored are the first tiebreaker in the K League, followed by the goal difference. Gangwon, Gwangju and Seongnam have the identical records of five wins, six draws and eight losses, with Gangwon staying in front now by virtue of having netted 24 goals. That's one more than Gwangju and seven more than Seongnam.

FC Seoul and Seongnam have both scored 17 goals, but Seongnam are well ahead in the goal difference tiebreaker, minus-4 to minus-18.

Perhaps the most dramatic race is taking place at the bottom, with the last place club facing automatic relegation to the K League 2 in 2021.

Suwon Samsung Bluewings, a proud franchise that has fallen on some hard times recently, are in 11th at 17 points. Incheon United, who opened the season with a 15-match winless skid, have come alive with three victories in their last four. They're at 14 points, hoping to pull off yet another survival act after years of barely avoiding relegation.

There's another Sangju-related twist to the relegation scenario this year.

The military club will relocate to another city in the same North Gyeongsang Province, Gimcheon, next year. And in exchange for the new start, the team will play the 2021 season in the K League 2. No matter where they place at the end of this season, they will be sent down to the lower competition.

Normally, with the 12th-place team going down directly to the second division, the 11th-place club had to survive a promotion-relegation playoff against a K League 2 opponent. This year, with Sangju Sangmu already occupying one relegation quota for 2021, other teams only have to stay out of the cellar, and they'll live to see another season in the K League 1.

Suwon can go either direction. They're just four points behind Gangwon for sixth place. On Tuesday, they named former franchise star Park Kun-ha as their new head coach. Perhaps Park will provide some much-needed spark for a club that has managed just two wins in their last eight contests.

Three matches later, the 12 teams will be "split" into two tiers: Final A and Final B. And during the split phase, clubs will play the final five matches of the season within their own group.

The top four of Ulsan, Jeonbuk, Sangju and Pohang have already locked down their spots in Final A, with potentially six clubs vying for the last two berths. (Yonhap)