Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Korea All Set For UAE

UAE arrive in Korea

A World Cup qualifier against UAE would not usually be a huge game but Wednesday’s clash in Seoul promises to be a big, big night for South Korean football.

What should happen in such a situation, and what has usually happened in the past, is that the host enjoys a fairly comfortable victory and takes a step towards what would be a seventh successive World Cup.

And yet, there are nerves everywhere. Nerves at the Korean Football Association that the team will miss out, dealing a huge blow to the sport in the Land of the Morning Calm, nerves among the media who don’t want to imagine a World Cup without Korea, nerves among the players who dream of the chance to showcase their talents on the biggest stage of all, nerves among the fans who are rightly proud of Korea’s World Cup record and nerves among the coaching staff who could soon find themselves out of a job.

A 1-1 tie against North Korea in Shanghai in September was a reasonable, if slightly disappointing result –though the performance was poor- and leaves no room for error at home against the weakest member of the group. As well as North Korea and UAE, Asian powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia are the other two members of the group. Only the top two progresses to South Africa - third place means play-offs and if you thought things were tense now, winner-takes-all elimination games play havoc with the blood pressure.

But that is way in the future. With tricky trips to Riyadh, against a team that Korea has lost three and tied two of its last five games, and Tehran where the East Asians have never won an official match, up next, it is imperative that the full three points are deposited in the bank tonight.

If not, coach Huh Jung-moo is likely to be out of the door and a big-name foreign coach drafted in as a jittery KFA looks to salvage the campaign before it is too late. Huh is showing no signs of the pressure and has vowed to attack the West Asians from the beginning.

There are some absentees. Kim Do-heon, Lee Chun-soo, Kim Chi-gon, Kim Jin-kyu, Jung Jo-gook and Lee Jang-soo are injured. Captain Kim Nam-il is suspended but there is some good news. UAE is in something of a crisis. The West Asians have played two games so far, both at home and both were lost. In September, coach Bruno Metsu, who almost took the South Korean job in 2004, jumped ship to nearby Qatar.

Fellow Frenchman Dominique Bathenay is expected to play it safe in Seoul but knows that a good result could resurrect UAE’s World Cup dreams.

“South Korea is a strong team,” said a tired-looking Bathaney as he arrived at Incheon International Airport on Monday.

“We know many of their players but we are going to focus just on our own team and how we are going to play. It looks as if two from South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia will qualify. We have struggled from the beginning but there is still a chance for us. It will be a tough match against South Korea but we will fight for our lives until the end.”

That end will be virtually guaranteed if the UAE loses in Seoul. Ismail Matar is the one to watch out for. Small but stocked full of silky skills, he scored four out of seven UAE goals in the previous round of qualification and is presented with gifts of camels on a regular basis from fans.

Korea warmed up for the UAE game against Uzbekistan on Saturday and won 3-0. All three goals were impressive as were the players that scored them. Talented teenagers Lee Chung-yung and Ki Sung-yung play together for FC Seoul and combined well for the first goal. Daegu’s Lee Keun-ho scored twice in the second, doing enough to earn a starting place.

Lee Chung-young and Ki Sung-yung celebrate

“The goal has given me confidence,” said Ki who scored the only goal against North Korea in Shanghai. “It has also made me greedy for more and I am looking for a third consecutive goal against UAE. It will not be an easy game for us but we are capable of getting a good result.”

As tests go, the Uzbekistan game was not the best as the Central Asians were happy to attack Korea, leaving holes at the back. There will be no such easy pickings in the northwest corner of Seoul this evening.

UAE prepared by drawing 1-1 in Japan last week. It was a good result though the Japanese missed a host of chances and allowed UAE to score on the counter-attack. It is a scenario not unfamiliar to Korean fans and a repeat tonight would signal the start of a turbulent few weeks in Korean soccer.

Despite all the nerves, that shouldn’t happen as Korea look set to take a step closer to South Africa.

copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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