Friday, February 5, 2010

East Asia Provides Route To South Africa

South Korea.
For fans in South Korea, the 2010 World Cup is put on a back burner this weekend as the fourth East Asian championships are held in Japan.

The biennial four-nation tournament, which runs from February 6 to 14, is often a feisty affair as you would expect as it features regional rivals China, Japan, South Korea and one other from this part of the world. That has been North Korea for the past two occasions but this time round, the 1966 World Cup quarter-finalists failed to qualify and Hong Kong will fill the fourth spot instead. There is still some spice however as the former British colony is coached by a South Korean, Kim Pan-gon, hoping to make headlines at home.

The prize for lifting the trophy, which has been contested three times and gone to South Korea twice and China once, is mostly measured in terms of regional pride though it does come with a prize of $500,000. It is not a huge event in the world of soccer but for fans in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, the chance to put one over on neighbours and rivals is always welcome.

This year is a little different as it is the first time the tournament has been held in the run-up to the World Cup and while Japan and Korea, both qualifiers for the June tournament in South Africa, would be delighted to win, thoughts are on the bigger picture.

Japan and South Korea see tough and competitive games in Tokyo as ideal preparation for the big ones in South Africa. Japan has been drawn in the same group as the Netherlands, Denmark and Cameroon in June, and has been struggling a little to find committed opposition. In October, Japan was disappointed at the lack of challenge presented by Togo and Scotland who travelled east shorn of their stars.

"We wanted two tough matches but you can only beat the opposition in front of you,” said Japan coach Takeshi Okada at the time. Now Okada is looking forward the upcoming tests. “The East Asian Championship is a chance to take our game up a level further. Unlike the games we had at the end of last year, this time I'm expecting a serious challenge."

Okada and his team need a challenge if he is to meet the targets that he has set for his team at the World Cup – a spot in the semifinal to match South Korea’s achievements in 2002.

“I said I wanted to shock the world,” Okada said recently. “If South Korea reached the semifinals, then why can’t we? Motivation is the key for the players who want to make it to our World Cup squad. We will only pick players who are serious about giving it their best shot and trying to reach the semi-finals.”

No extra motivation is needed for players on either side when Japan and Korea. The Taeguk Warriors have just returned from a three-week training camp. The three games in South Africa, getting a taste of playing soccer in the relatively high altitude of the Rainbow Nation, didn’t go too well with a defeat against Zambia in the first match. Results improved slightly and the two subsequent matches in Spain against Finland and Latvia both ended in wins.

The lack of goals from his strikers has concerned coach Huh Jung-moo, who like his Japanese counterpart is also hoping that the East Asian Cup can give his team some much-needed hard work.

"During the two training camps and five friendlies, I noted the strong and weak points of the players. It was a good experience for them."

Much attention in the Korean media has been on the stuttering form of striker Lee Dong-gook. The 2009 K-League top scorer found the back of the net 21 times last season for champion Jeonbuk Motors but after earning a recall to the national team, he has yet to show the same kind of ruthlessness. There are signs that coach Huh is losing patience with the man who was omitted from the 2002 squad and injured in 2006.

"The players did their job properly in their respective positions but we must improve the killer instinct,” said Huh. "We lost many clear chances and were not sharp enough in front of the goal. The players must show more technique and have physical strength to get a World Cup call-up.

South Korea’s opening game on Sunday is against Hong Kong. Then come games against China on Wednesday and Japan on Sunday. Contests with the latter pair are always intense. These days, China is just desperate to defeat Korea as it has simply never done so. The two teams have met 27 times in their history with Korea winning 16 and the other 11 ending in a tie. China’s ‘Koreaphobia’ is alive and well and sure to be mentioned a number of times by the Korean media over the next few days.

Huh got his first win in charge of the Taeguk Warriors in this competition against China in February 2008 and while he may have his sights set on South Africa, he won’t want to become the first ever coach to lose to China.

What he is hoping the tournament will help him do however is become the first coach to lead South Korea past the first round at a World Cup held overseas.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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