Monday, July 16, 2007

Taeguk Warriors? Korea Need To Get Tough

It’s looking grim for South Korea at the 2007 Asian Cup. With one game remaining in Group D, the Taeguk Warriors no longer control their own destiny. After one draw and one defeat, Korea’s Asian Cup hopes are, as headline writers around the world like to say in such situations, ‘hanging by a thread.’

It was the 2-1 loss at the hands of Bahrain on a warm Sunday evening in Jakarta that has pushed the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists to the edge of elimination. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the team crawled to the brink itself after shooting itself in the foot.

Only a win against Indonesia in Jakarta on Wednesday and a positive result in the game between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia elsewhere will see one of the pre-tournament favourites squeeze into the last eight.

It shouldn’t be this way. Korea took an early lead, dominated most of the game against Bahrain but somehow ended up with nothing. Surprising as the loss was, the scenario is not an unfamiliar one.

If lowly Taiwan are taken out of the occasion; in the five competitive games played since the World Cup, Korea has now taken the lead four times yet failed to record a single victory. In qualifiers for the Asian Cup in Seoul, Korea went ahead against Iran and Syria, controlled proceedings but were undone by defensive mistakes. Saudi Arabia may not have been dominated but weren’t killed off and we all saw what happened against Bahrain.

Friendly matches don’t seem to be a problem however. In the five so far this year, Korea took the lead in three and won and fell behind in the other two and lost.

In the post-match press conference on Sunday, a Korean journalist questioned the players’ famed mental strength. In Asian football circles, it is an oft-repeated assertion that those who pull on the red shirt have an indomitable, never-say-die attitude and all-round rock solid mentality - the Taeguk Warriors.

Maybe they are not quite as strong as previously assumed. In competitive games that they are expected to win, a South Korea team that holds a narrow lead rarely gives confidence that it has the capability to protect or add to it.

Perhaps like Australia, Korea just feel more comfortable as underdogs with their backs against the wall battling against the 'big' teams.

Bahrain are no slouches on the Asian scene and almost reached the final of the 2004 competition. However in the 12 previous meetings between the two countries, the Gulf State had drawn three and lost nine and that sorry record was looking likely to be extended to an unlucky 13 after Kim Doo-hyun’s early strike.

Just before half-time however, the Korean defence went to sleep and was undone in the simplest of manners. A free-kick on the edge of the centre circle was lofted over the defence and into the penalty area for Salman Ali to fire home. Six minutes from time, another defensive mistake led to Ismaeel Abdullatiff scoring the winner.

Both were classic examples of Korea’s concentration problems at the back. No defence is immune from such lapses but for much of the post 2002 World Cup period, the Korean back-line has demonstrated all too often that is liable to switch off at crucial moments. The worst part is that such mistakes seem to have an incredibly high conversion rate into goals – as Bahrain’s two shots and two goals demonstrated.

Coupled with the problems at the back is the team’s inability to kill teams off when they have both the lead and control of the game. Much of the second half was spent in and around the Bahraini penalty area but possession and pressure didn’t yield the expected number of clear-cut chances. When opportunities did come, they weren’t taken.

The team is missing such stars as Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo, Seol Ki-hyeon and Kim Nam-il and it is likely that results would have been different with that experienced quartet available. However, the starting eleven that took the field against Bahrain was not full of fresh-faced youngsters. Many of them had World Cup and overseas experience – certainly enough to avoid defeat against Bahrain after taking an early lead.

Bahrain coach Milan Macala said after the game that for all Korea’s personnel changes from the previous game, the style and tactics were exactly the same. A settled system is all well and good but when attacks become predictable the team has to be so effective that it doesn’t matter or changes have to be made.

It is harsh on Korea that they are in this position. Australia have performed much more poorly yet, unlike the east Asians, still control their own destiny going into the final game. Korea could easily be leading the group yet find themselves propping it up - such is football.

As I write, I can see the local fans outside the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta lining the streets in an attempt to get tickets for Wednesday's game. It will be a red-hot atmosphere in front of over 90,000 screaming fans. The going has gotten tough, now is the time for the tough to get going.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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