ABU DHABI // If South Korea are to be crowned Asian Cup champions this month, they will have to first learn how to beat teams from the Middle East, according to Ji-sung Park, the Manchester United midfielder who wears the captain's armband for his country.
Park will lead his nation out against Bahrain next Monday night in Doha as Korea begin their group stage campaign aiming to secure their first Asian Cup title for more than 50 years.
Park acknowledges that his side, grouped together with Australia, India and Bahrain, will be favourites to progress, but concedes Kwang-rae Cho's men must cope better with the physicality of Middle Eastern football if they are to return to Seoul with the trophy.
Korea have not won the Asian Cup since victory on home soil in 1960 and in recent years have fallen to Gulf opponents. Back-to-back defeats by Kuwait in 1996 and 2000, were followed up by a 4-3 loss to Iran in 2004 before again suffering at the hands of the Arab world in 2007 when they were defeated in the semi-finals by eventual winners Iraq.
"Always in our history we have lost against the Middle Eastern teams," Park said, after helping his side ease to a 2-0 warm-up win over UAE Pro League side Al Jazira last night. "For us, we have to prepare better for the games against sides from this region.
"If we can beat them then we can easily win the title because we know how to deal with the Japans and Chinas and Australias. We have lots of experience against these sides, but we do not have any good experiences against teams from the middle of Asia. That is why we have to concentrate on beating them."
Coach Kwang-rae has one of the strongest squads in the tournament and his assistant Alexandre Torreira da Gama Lima said Korea will arrive in Qatar confident and motivated to win.
"The objective is to win the championship because for 51 years Korea has not won," said the Brazilian. "Everybody is mentally prepared to give 100 per cent to help the country achieve this."
Seven of the 11 Korean players who started last night's final warm-up match ply their trade outside their home country and it is this experience Park believes stands his side in good stead for success this month.
"The 2002 squad [that reached the World Cup semi-finals] was the strongest for me, but this team now has many young players who, if they continue to improve and meet their potential, can become the strongest team I've played with.
"Many of them play in Europe where football is very different, but to play at international level is tough and the experience of playing in Europe helps," said Park, who added an Asian Cup title would eclipse the Champions League medal he won with Manchester United in 2008.
"To win the Asian Cup would be special because if we want to be recognised as the strongest team in Asia then we have to win this cup."