In what will be their tenth successive World Cup finals, South Korea will look to make it out of the group stages for only the third time in their history.
To do so, the Taeguk Warriors will need to negotiate their way past Uruguay, who knocked them out of the Round of 16 in 2010, before facing Ghana and Portugal, manager Paulo Bento’s home nation, in what is a strong group.
Their current form – which most recently includes defeat to Japan and a draw with Costa Rica in two of their last three games – pours cold water on a largely positive 2022 overall.
Until a 3-0 defeat to Japan, which lost them their EAFF E-1 crown in the East Asian Football Championship Final, South Korea had lost just once in seven matches, against Brazil.
They’ll need to replicate their earlier form if they’re going to follow their previous World Cup best, which came in 2002 when they secured a fourth-place finish when hosting the World Cup back in with Japan. At that stage, they were only the second team from outside Europe and the Americas to reach the semi-finals of the tournament. Sixteen years later, in Russia, they sent home reigning champions Germany.
Any hope they have of making a mark in Qatar rests on the form of Son Heung-min, one of the finest forwards in world football. However, there is a concern that Bento’s squad may be too reliant on their talisman, and that they’re yet to find a plan B should the Spurs striker misfire.
Moreover, in recent games, Son has played in attack and on the wing, suggesting Bento is yet to decide on his best use of the star before Qatar. And god forbid that Son goes on another dry spell in front of goal; when he recently went eight league games without finding the net before a hat-trick at Leicester, there was widespread panic in his homeland.
Since that hat-trick, though, Son has scored twice for his country, once in a 1-0 win against Cameroon and again against Costa Rica, suggesting that maybe his country’s reliance and expectation – not to mention the air miles he covers to pull on the red shirt – aren’t too much of a burden after all.
What is clear, however, is that in conceding three time to Japan, coupled with the 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Brazil, is that Bento’s defence will need to be stronger.
No doubt he will need Napoli centre-back Kim Min-jae to step up; the 25-year-old defender has been in fine form since moving to Serie A, prompting rumours of a move to the Premier League. He will need to bring that presence to the table in Group H if Korea are going to compete.
Manager: Paulo Bento
Star player: Son Heung-min
One to watch: Kim Min-jae
World Cup finals appeared in: 1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014, 2018
Fixtures: Nov 24 – Uruguay v South Korea; Nov 28 – South Korea v Ghana; Dec 2 – South Korea v Portugal