2014 World Cup Group H team previews: South Korea
South Korea will be playing at their eighth consecutive World Cup finals in June but must improve on a dire qualification campaign to have any chance of escaping a tough group in Brazil.
Unlike fierce rivals Japan, they spluttered through qualifying and it ended with the departure of coach Choi Kang-hee amid concerns the team were heading for embarrassment in South America.
A 1-0 home defeat by Iran in the final match meant South Korea grabbed the last automatic berth on goal difference. Choi subsequently stepped aside and former skipper Hong Myung-bo took over.
Tasked with shoring up a suspect defence and sharpening a one-dimensional attack, Hong tinkered with personnel and formations and won once in his first seven games.
However, a stoic display in a 2-0 defeat by Brazil in October was followed by an impressive 3-1 win over Mali and a superb 2-1 victory over Switzerland.
As good as the result was against the Swiss, who went through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, the manner in which South Korea controlled possession and opened up their opponents at will suggested Hong had found the right formula.
Unlucky to lose 2-1 to World Cup Group H rivals Russia in a friendly four days later, the Koreans slumped to defeats against Mexico and United States as Hong gave fringe players a chance.
His team then looked good again in a 2-0 win over Greece in Athens with what looked like their strongest XI.
The Koreans are likely to have to beat Algeria and get a positive result against Russia if they are to stand a chance of reaching the knockout stage in Brazil, with top-quality group rivals Belgium highly fancied to go a long way.
It will be the third time the Koreans will meet Belgium at the World Cup after losing 2-0 in 1990 and drawing 1-1 in 1998.
They will be facing Russia and Algeria for the first time at the finals.
While a return to the semi-finals, a feat they achieved in 2002 as co-hosts, is almost certainly beyond them, the Koreans stand a decent chance of reaching the knockout stages.
They have a fine record against African sides, beating Togo in 2006 and drawing with Nigeria four years later. The Russia game is expected to be the key fixture for both sides.
Much will depend on how a young Korean team cope with the pressure of a World Cup. The majority of the squad are in their mid-20s and playing in a finals for the first time.
Their 1-0 friendly defeat at home to Tunisia on Wednesday highlighted their goalscoring problems.
Son Heung-Min, a 21-year-old forward, may hold the key to improving South Korea’s scoring record.
Son made his name netting 12 goals for Hamburg last season, earning a lucrative transfer to Bayer Leverkusen. More goals have come this season for his new German club and he is South Korea’s top-scorer under Hong, with four in eight games.
Five to watch:
Kim Young-gwon, defender (Guangzhou Evergrande); Age 24; 19 caps. When World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi says you have the talent to play for Manchester United, you must be doing something right. Kim has impressed the Italian since he moved to Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande in 2012. Played a crucial role in helping them win the Asian Champions League last year.
Kim Bo-kyung, midfielder (Cardiff City); Age 24; 26 caps. His eye-catching performances at the 2012 Olympics, where he helped the Koreans to the bronze medal, convinced Cardiff to buy him from Japanese side Cerezo Osaka and the attacking midfielder has impressed in England. While Korea can lack a cutting edge at times and play too many square balls, Kim’s incisive passing and deft touch keeps the Korean midfield moving forward.
Ki Sung-yueng, midfielder (Sunderland); Age 25; 56 caps. Silky smooth central midfielder who pulls the strings, dictates tempo and provides a buffer for Korea’s defenders. His delivery from set-pieces is world class and he is a serious threat from free kicks around the box. An example of the new breed of South Korean player, Ki has adapted to different styles of football in Australia, Scotland and England.
Lee Chung-yong, midfielder (Bolton Wanderers); Age 25; 53 caps. The ‘Blue Dragon’, as his name translates, has stuck with Bolton through their slide out of the Premier League and down the Championship table. A horrible leg break in 2011 interrupted his career for more than a year, but he is now looking like his old self again, twisting defenders in knots and providing the kind of width that stretches defences to breaking point.
Son Heung-min, striker (Bayer Leverkusen) Age 21; 23 caps. Joined Hamburg’s youth academy straight from high school in Korea and has flourished in Germany, earning a big money move to Leverkusen at the start of the season. Pacy and good with both feet, he is Korea’s most dynamic forward whether played through the middle or on the flanks.
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Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM