Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Final Countdown

South Korea.
We're almost there now. On the evening on Saturday June 12, Seoul and other South Korean cities will be crammed with red-shirted people ready to eat, drink and watch their national team kick off its 2010 World Cup campaign against Greece.

Nelson Mandela Bay is the location for the opening Group B match, one that most pundits believe Korea has to win in order to have a good chance of progressing to the second round. There is still a little work to do before then however. Not least in a final test in the early hours of Friday morning, Korea time, against European champion Spain in the picturesque Austrian city of Innsbruck.

Spain is one of the favorites to win the World Cup. Korea’s target is a little less lofty but after two and a half years of preparation, it is a final chance for players to stake their claim for a starting spot. It is likely however, after the experimentation of Sunday's friendly 1-0 defeat against Belarus when coach Huh Jung-moo gave much of the squad a chance to play, that most of the eleven players who line up against the Spanish will do the same against Greece on June 12.

The performance in the Belarus match was flat and the result was poor. It was a low key match however played among the Alps, good preparation for the relatively high altitude in some World Cup host cities. It had the feel of a preparation game, was a highly experimental affair and the team’s form has been good enough of late to be able to shrug off a bad afternoon. And everyone knows, winning all the warm-up games is never a guarantee of success at the big tournament.

More serious was the sight of Kwak Tae-hwi being carried off the pitch in the first half. The defender twisted a knee ligament. Lee Won-jae, the team’s media officer, said, “Kwak will need at least four weeks to recover…. Coach Huh Jung-moo will request a replacement.” It is a cruel blow for the Japan-based centre back but it is good news for Suwon Bluewings defender Kang Min-soo who has been summoned.
There have other changes as the roster was finally trimmed from 26 to the regulation 23 on Monday. Three players had their dreams dashed at the final hurdle and were sent home on Monday.

Midfielders Shin Hyung-min and Ku Ja-cheol have missed out. Both are fairly new to the national team scene and have not done enough to convince the coach that they are necessary. It is sad for Ku, a promising 21 year-old Jeju United star who has been linked with a move to English Premier League club Blackburn Rovers, but he will have more chances. Coach Huh claimed that Shin just didn’t look sharp against Belarus and the Pohang Steelers defensive midfielder is on his way home.

He will be joined back in East Asia by Lee keun-ho. The Japan-based striker was one of six attackers in the preliminary roster and it was always likely that one would be cut. Lee scored a number of important goals in qualification but hasn’t found the net for the national team in 15 months. As Huh succinctly pointed out “he has been given opportunities but hasn’t taken them.” That means that 2002 star Ahn Jung-hwan is going to his third World Cup at the age of 34.

The 23 will all be hoping to take the pitch against Spain and all will be desperate to avoid a Kwak-like fate though as the Spanish will be in a similar state of mind, it should be a fairly gentle affair. Spain struggled to a 3-2 win over Saudi Arabia last weekend and will be keen for a better performance against East Asian opposition.

Whatever the outcome, taking on the likes of David Villa, Xavi and Andres Iniesta will be a worthy final test for South Korea as they move closer to the games that really matter.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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