By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- The two giants of South Korean club football will clash with a semifinals berth at stake in the top continental tournament on the weekend.
Ulsan Hyundai FC, currently atop the K League 1 tables, and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, which trail Ulsan by a point, will square off in the quarterfinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League at 7 p.m. on Sunday. Though the match will kick off at Jeonbuk's home, Jeonju World Cup Stadium, it is technically serving as a neutral venue for both of the quarterfinal matches scheduled for that day in the East Region.
Ulsan are the defending AFC champions, now going for their third title overall. Jeonbuk have also won two AFC crowns, their most recent one coming in 2016. This will be the 15th all-South Korean showdown in the knockouts of the AFC Champions League.
The other quarterfinal contest on Sunday will pit another Korean club, Pohang Steelers, against Nagoya Grampus of Japan for a 2 p.m. kickoff.
To minimize traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the AFC has reduced all knockout matches, including the championship final, to one-and-done affairs. Jeonju World Cup Stadium will also host the semifinals next Wednesday for the East Region, which featured clubs from South Korea, Japan and China, among others.
The West Region, with teams from countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will play their quarterfinals and semifinals in Riyadh.
Clubs from those two regions are on the opposite sides of the bracket and will only meet in the final, scheduled for Nov. 23.
This is the third AFC Champions League game between Ulsan and Jeonbuk. Most recently, Jeonbuk knocked off Ulsan 6-4 on aggregate in the semifinals of the 2006 tournament, and went on to win the competition.
Jeonbuk are the four-time defending K League 1 champions, and their past two titles came at the expense of Ulsan, which hold the dubious record with the most runner-up finishes in K League history with nine.
Ulsan salvaged their 2020 season by winning the AFC Champions League title, while Jeonbuk, which had earlier won both the K League and the Korean FA Cup trophies, got knocked out in the group stage in their treble bid.
The rivals have played each other three times in the K League 1 so far this year, with two scoreless draws sandwiching a 4-2 victory for Ulsan in May.
Ulsan are undefeated in their past 17 matches in the AFC Champions League. They beat Kawasaki Frontale in a penalty shootout in the round of 16 but it goes into the record books as a draw.
Ulsan will also try to keep their treble dreams alive. In addition to having realistic shots at winning the K League 1 and AFC Champions League titles, they've reached the semifinals of the FA Cup.
In Sunday's match, Ulsan will have to keep an eye on Jeonbuk forward Gustavo, who has scored eight goals to lead all players still in the tournament. Counting his three assists, the Brazilian attacker has been involved in 11 goals, more than anyone in this year's competition.
Pohang have been stuck in neutral in domestic play this season. They sit in seventh place among 12 K League 1 clubs with 42 points, which, if the season were to end today, would be their worst ranking in four years. They snapped their four-match losing streak on Oct. 3 with a 3-2 win over Gwangju FC. It was only Pohang's second victory in their past nine games.
Nagoya and Pohang finished first and second in Group G to qualify for the knockouts. Nagoya won their first meeting 3-0 in June, and the two played to a 1-1 draw the following month.
Pohang boast three AFC titles but none since 2009. They're playing in the quarterfinals for the first time in seven years.