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2018 K League 1 season ends with Jeonbuk dominance

All Headlines 16:37 December 02, 2018

SEOUL, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- The 2018 season of the top South Korean pro football league wrapped up its nine-month journey on Sunday with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors once again reigning supreme.

The 12 clubs in the K League 1 completed their season having played 38 matches each. The K League 1 uses a split system in which the 12 are divided into two echelons after playing 33 matches and then play five more matches within their group.

Jeonbuk pretty much sucked the drama out of the league this season as they successfully defended their title two months before the season finale. Jeonbuk now have six K League 1 titles in the last 10 seasons, and they're only one trophy short of matching Seongnam FC, who have won the league seven times.

This photo provided by Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors on Oct. 20, 2018, shows Jeonbuk players and coaches celebrating with the K League 1 winners' trophy at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province. (Yonhap)

With six matches to spare, Choi Kang-hee's side were declared the 2018 K League 1 season champions on Oct. 7 and they became the first club to clinch the title before the split since the system was introduced in 2012.

Jeonbuk maintained their top position in the standings since April and cruised to the title. They eventually finished the season with 86 points from 26 wins, eight draws and four losses, 21 points above No. 2 Gyeongnam FC. Jeonbuk's 86 points is also a K League 1 record for the most points in a single 38-match campaign.

Jeonbuk were leaders in both goals scored and goals surrendered. They scored 75 goals and conceded 31.

For Jeonbuk, it was their last season with head coach Choi, who also delivered two Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League trophies to the Jeonju-based club. With Choi leaving for Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian, Jeonbuk will be managed by Jose Morais of Portugal next season.

While Jeonbuk proved their dominance, there was, nevertheless, a surprise this season: Gyeongnam unexpectedly took the runners-up spot.

Gyeongnam earned promotion to the first division after taking the second division K League 2 title last year. It was their first stint in the top flight since 2014.

This file photo, taken Nov. 25, 2018, shows Gyeongnam FC players celebrating after scoring a goal against Suwon Samsung Bluewings in a K League 1 match at Changwon Football Centre in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (Yonhap)

While many thought Gyeongnam would struggle in the first division from the start, they delivered solid performances under head coach Kim Jong-boo.

Their performance was largely anchored by Brazilian striker Marcos Vinicius Amaral Alves, commonly known as Marcao. The 23-year-old finished the season as the top scorer with 26 goals in 31 matches and is now one of the four candidates for the K League 1 MVP honor.

Marcao's Brazilian compatriot Guilherme Ferreira Pinto, commonly known as Negueba, and Japanese forward Takahiro Kunimoto helped Gyeongnam's attack. South Korean midfielder Choi Young-jun and defender Park Ji-soo also caught K League fans' attention.

Pohang Steelers revived their reputation as K League 1 powerhouses after making an impressive improvement under head coach Choi Soon-ho this season. They took fourth behind Ulsan Hyundai in their return to Group A, the upper part of the split. Pohang finished seventh last year in Group B, the lower group.

Other clubs in Group A had a tough season compared to last year. Jeju United, last season's runners-up, dropped to fifth place with 54 points, while Suwon Samsung Bluewings, last year's third place, took sixth place with 50 points.

Among the traditional powerhouses, FC Seoul had a very disappointing season as they finished the league in 11th place. The six-time K League 1 champions were fifth last year.

FC Seoul players react after losing 1-0 to Sangju Sangmu in a K League 1 match at Sangju Civic Stadium in Sangju, North Gyeongsang Province, on Dec. 1, 2018. (Yonhap)

Seoul were relegated to Group B for the first time in their history. Looking for a rebound, they brought back former boss Choi Yong-soo in October, but struggled to get out of their slump.

Seoul now must beat Busan IPark FC of the second division K League 2 to remain in the first division. The two teams will go head-to-head on Thursday and Dec. 9. Each season, the last-place club in the K League 1 gets relegated to the second division the following season, while the second-to-last team must survive a promotion playoff series against the K League 2 playoff winners.

Jeonnam Dragons were another club that had a poor season. They were confirmed the bottom dwellers in the K League 1 a week before the season finale and were demoted to the K League 2. Jeonnam eventually finished the season with 32 points from eight wins, eight draws and 22 losses.

Jeonnam suffered second-division relegation for the first time in their history. They also became first corporate-owned football club to be directly demoted to the K League 2.

In this file photo, taken Nov. 11, 2018, a Jeonnam Dragons supporter invades the pitch to protest the referee's decision following Jeonnam's 3-2 loss to FC Seoul in a K League 1 match at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Military football club Sangju Sangmu were lucky enough to escape the relegation zone at the last moment. They beat Seoul 1-0 in the season finale and moved up one spot to 10th place. Both Sangju and Seoul were tied at 40 points, but the former had the tiebreaking edge in goals scored.

Incheon United were the worst club before the split, but they showed their survivors' instinct when they were put in a corner. Led by boss Jorn Andersen, Incheon collected four wins in their last five matches to confirm their K League 1 status next season. Incheon eventually took ninth place behind Daegu FC and Gangwon FC in Group B.

Meanwhile, the 2018 K League 1 season turned out to be another dominant season for foreign strikers as only one homegrown player made the top five scorers list.

With Marcao taking the scoring crown with 26 goals, Gangwon's Serbian target man Uros Djeric was second with 24 goals, followed by Ulsan's Junior Negrao with 22 goals and Incheon's Stefan Mugosa with 19 goals. Incheon attacker Moon Seon-min was the highest scoring South Korean this season with 14 goals.

In this file photo, taken March 4, 2018, Gyeongnam FC's Brazilian striker Marcao celebrates after scoring a goal against Sangju Sangmu in a K League 1 match at Changwon Football Center in Changwon. (Yonhap)

Foreigners also expanded their presence in the assist category. Last year, South Koreans filled the top 10 list in assists, with then Pohang man Son Jun-ho taking the crown with 14 helpers. But this year, three foreigners managed to enter the top five, with Daegu's Cesar Fernando Silva Melo, commonly known as Cesinha, taking the top honor with 11 helpers. Incheon's Costa Rican midfielder Elias Aguilar was No. 2 with 10 assists.

kdon@yna.co.kr
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