Late Pohang equalizer robs Ulsan of early K League title
Ulsan Hyundai’s dreams of locking up the K League title early came crashing down on Tuesday when local rivals Pohang Steelers came from behind to hold the top club to a 1-1 draw at Pohang Steel Yard in Pohang, North Gyeongsang.
A win on Wednesday would have given Ulsan an insurmountable lead over runners-up Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and earned them the season title for the first time in 17 years with two matches still left to play.
With Ulsan looking for their regular season title and the Steelers looking to secure the third spot on the table, the match at Pohang Steel Yard in Pohang on Wednesday was a fiery one — fittingly considering it reignited the rivalry between the two clubs at the heart of Korea’s gritty southeastern industrial belt.
After several heated exchanges between the two teams, Ulsan was the one to open the scoring in the 39th minute. Um Won-sang sent a well-placed cross to Valeri “Vako” Qazaishvili, who slotted the ball into the net.
Despite controlling sixty percent of the ball, Pohang was unable to find an answer in the first half.
After the break, Ulsan hunkered down and focused on protecting their one-goal lead, with Pohang only able to find a chance with 16 minutes of regular time left on the clock.
In the 79th minute, Lim Sang-hyub picked out Lee Ho-jae, who headed in his first goal of the season.
Ulsan went back on the offensive play but it was too little, too late for the visitors and Pohang held off the onslaught until the final whistle blew.
“I wanted to prevent Ulsan from winning their season title at Pohang Steel Yard,” said Lee after the match. “There weren’t many defenders around me so I only thought about putting the goal inside the net. I am glad that I could score my first goal of the season as an equalizer for my team.”
Ulsan not only were looking for a long-awaited K League title, but also to settle the old rivalry against their regional competitors on Tuesday. With the draw, the Steelers still hold the upper hand in the head-to-head record this season with two wins a draw, an especially impressive achievement considering Ulsan has only dropped five matches.
The draw against the Steelers brings back bitter memories for Ulsan.
Ulsan lost their chance at winning the title in 2013 after conceding a last-minute goal to the Steelers at home. Ulsan only needed a draw to win the title at the time, but fell behind during injury time with a late goal from Kim Won-il that won Pohang the trophy.
Ulsan had to relive the same nightmare in 2019, when Pohang once again stopped them from winning the season title. Ulsan were only looking for a draw against Pohang to hold off Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to take the title at home, but Pohang crushed Ulsan in a 4-1 victory to take title.
Then, in 2020, it was Pohang once again who held down Ulsan, shutting them out 4-0 in their third-to-last match and dragging them down to tie with Jeonbuk on top of the standings. Ulsan lost momentum and Jeobuk beat them the following week to take the title.
Ulsan will have to wait a few more days to lock in the top spot. The club is looking for its third regular season victory after winning in 1996 and 2005. After finishing runner up for the last three years, Ulsan has a total of 10 runner-up finishes, the most in the league.
If Ulsan wins the regular season this year, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors will not be able to take home any silverware for the first time in five years. Jeonbuk has the most K League 1 regular season titles, at nine, and has swept the trophies since 2017.
BY YUN SO-HYANG [email@example.com]