Monday, February 9, 2009

Azadi Atmosphere Awaits For South Korea

Azadi Atmosphere Awaits For South Korea.
Last week South Korea decided to bid for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. Tonight, attention is focused solely on qualifying for the 2010 version as the national team takes on Iran in Tehran.

100,000 fans (all male – though female Korean fans are allowed with headscarves) will cram into the imposing Azadi Stadium in the Persian capital to watch a big match between two of Asia's biggest rivals. It will not be a night for the faint-hearted.

It could have been a lot worse however. The Taeguk Warriors take the field in Tehran with seven points from three games so far, two points clear at the top of Group Two in Asian qualification. The top two teams automatically qualify for South Africa.

Iran is in second with five while Saudi Arabia and North Korea, who meet in Pyongyang, have four each. UAE is virtually out of the running with one.

A win for Huh Jung-moo's men would put them well in control of the group at the halfway stage. As three of those last four games take place in the Land of the Morning Calm, it would be a huge step along the road to 2010. In truth a draw would be more than satisfactory. In three matches in Tehran, Korea has never won. On paper, it is the toughest of the five remaining games.

Iran is a formidable opponent. Javad Nekounam plays for Osasuna in Spain and is one of Asia's best midfielders – powerful and inspirational. Much has been made in the Korean media of the fact that ‘Neka' will be faced by young Seoul star Ki Sung-yung. If Ki – tipped for great things – can hold his own against the Persian Prince on his own turf then it could be a night to remember.

Nekounam believes that older heads than Ki's will struggle at the Azadi Stadium. Park Ji-sung plays for Manchester United, the champions of England, Europe and the world but his Iranian counterpart believes he may struggle to handle the Azadi atmosphere. "Even Park, with his high level of experience, will face a different kind of atmosphere in Azadi. They have never before played under the pressure of 100,000 passionate fans. It will be hell for them," he said.

"I've played in huge stadiums in Spain. But Azadi is odd. They will be awestruck when they come out of the dressing room. Korea will taste the real feeling of loneliness. We have never lost with such fabulous support. Korea will be no exception."

Ali Daei holds the record for most international goals scored and is now the head coach of Iran – coincidentally, denying South Korea's former assistant, Afshin Ghotbi, the job. While the pressure is on Iran to win, Daei is confident.

"South Korea is a good team but I think we are much better than them and can defeat them with our foreign-based players in front of our fans," Daei told Tehran news agency ISNA. "The Iranian media has exaggerated South Korea. I have seen their friendly matches against Syria and Bahrain. They are not as big as what we have been led to believe."

Maybe not but those two warm-up ties extended the Taeguk Warriors' unbeaten run to 17 matches. Daei does have a point as the second of those two matches, a 2-2 draw against Bahrain was littered with defensive mistakes. Those errors need to be ironed out against an Iran team that hasn’t tasted defeat since the quarter-finals of the 2007 Asian Cup - against South Korea.

Park Ji-sung and the other European-based players arrived in Tehran on Monday, giving them little time to acclimatize to the conditions, which include a stadium located 1200 meters above sea level.

That shouldn't be high enough to induce dizziness but three points for Korea in the Iranian capital will put Korea clear at the summit of the group and within sight of their South African objective.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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