Tight pack set to kick off second half

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Tight pack set to kick off second half

The K-League Classic will kick off its second half this weekend, with a fierce competition expected in the race for a second-year title under the split system.

Each of the teams in the elite Group A will play 12 games in the second half, from Sunday, with the points they collected from the first half.

Only nine points separate the seven teams in the group, who are entitled to vie for the title of the country’s top flight football league. The league-leading Pohang Steelers are only three wins away from being caught by the Busan I’Park, who rounded out the seven-team group with 40 points.

Both Ulsan Hyundai and the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are trailing the Steelers by a point, and the defending champion FC Seoul are within three points of tying with Pohang, adding to unpredictability in the three-month second-half stretch. Three berths to the 2014 AFC Champions League are also at stake in Group A.

The Steelers, trying to keep alive their hope of becoming the first domestic-players-only winners in decades, will face off against Jeonbuk at Jeonju World Cup Stadium on Sunday, while Ulsan, who are runners-up thanks to their goal difference edge over Jeonbuk, will visit sixth-place Incheon United. Busan will bid to cut its deficit in the group when they host Seoul on Sunday.

Fourteen more rounds are set to be held through Dec. 1, during which each team will play 12 games. The playing schedule of the seven-team groups forces them to skip two rounds each. Saturday will see the Group B competition kick off with two penalty berths of relegation awaiting the group’s two worst teams.

Group B leader Seongnam Chunma will square off against last-place Daejeon Citizen. Jeju United, trailing Seongnam by a point, will play against the 12th-place Daegu FC, while the Chunnam Dragons open their campaign against southern rival Gyeongnam FC.

The two worst teams in Group B will be relegated to the K-League Challenge, further downsizing the top flight from 16 teams in 2012 to 12. Sangju Sangmu Phoenix, one of two teams demoted from the K-League Classic at the end of the 2012 season, are in second place in the K-League Challenge - but seven points behind the league-leading Korean Police FC - are holding on to their chance of getting into the playoff, where the Challenger winners will vie with the 12th-place team in the K-League Classic for a seat in the top competition next year.

The other demoted side, Gwangju FC, is in third place, trailing Sangju by nine points. Each of the eight Challenge teams will play 13 more matches through Nov. 30.

The individual title races will also be fierce in the second half.

The league is on track to bestow its scoring title to a foreign player for the third consecutive season.

Pedro of Jeju, who is leading the league with 16 goals, will have a good chance of retaining the lead as his team is expected to collect easy points in the less-competitive group. Kim Shin-wook of Ulsan is trailing Pedro by two goals, while Kevin Oris of Jeonbuk is on a roll, having scored 10 goals in 13 games since June. The Belgian striker scored 12 goals this season.

BY MOON GWANG-LIP [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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