Thursday, June 10, 2010

South Korea Ready For Greece

South Korea.
There is nothing like the World Cup for getting a country excited. These days in South Korea it is hard to see a television commercial that isn’t footy-related. While it is debatable as to how much the nation really loves the beautiful game, it has to be said that when it comes to the national team taking on the world, few can rival the passion of the Korean fans.

Such passion is matched in South Africa. On arrival at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport in mid-week, the arrivals gate was full of fans from Honduras and Mexico who had just landed. It was a pleasant reminder that the whole world really can’t wait for the action to start when South Africa takes on Mexico at the amazing Soccer City Stadium in Soweto. 95,000 fans will make quite an atmosphere.

Less than 24 hours later however, the attention of the world will join that of Asia and South Korea and fix its gaze upon Port Elizabeth. The Taeguk Warriors are the first from the continent to do battle in Africa and must face Greece.

It is being billed as a must-win match. Both teams think that three points from the opening match will open the way to the second round. South Korea, semifinalist in 2002, has never survived the first round in six previous attempts on foreign soil. This campaign with matches against Greece, Argentina and Nigeria offers the best chance yet.

Four years ago, the team came close under Dick Advocaat. In Germany, South Korea collected four points from the three matches, a tally that would have been enough in some groups but not the one that mattered. This team looks superior to the 2006 version with young stars such as Lee Chung-yong, Ki Sung-youg and Park Chu-young already playing in Europe and ready to offer their speed and skill along side experienced stars such as Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung and well-travelled defenders such as Lee Young-pyo and Cha Du-ri.

The game with Greece is not the be all and end all. A win doesn’t guarantee a place in the next round, Korea know this better than anyone else after failing to progress in Germany despite an opening match victory over Togo, and failing to win is not the end of the dream. France collected just two points from its first two matches in 2006 and still made the final.

What defeat does however is pile on the already significant pressure and leaves no room for error. A draw would not be a disaster but the time has gone when Korea would have been satisfied with a such a result against a middling European team. This is a new generation and is battle-hardened and confident. South Korea will be looking to beat the Greeks on Saturday to put itself in the position where it can watch the match between Argentina and Nigeria later the same day in a comfortable position.

Greece feel the same. "As everybody knows, the first match is the crunch match," said defender Nikos Spiropoulos. "It's essential to get a winning result. We will have to deal with a very disciplined team. I hope that on Saturday we'll be as fit as possible to achieve that goal."

“We know we have a key game against South Korea,” agrees midfielder Christos Patsatzoglou. “If we win, we are in a position to try to qualify for the next round. It's very important not to lose, everybody knows that."

"Park Ji-sung is definitely their top player," he said. "We've seen lots of DVDs of South Korea, but not only of Park in action. All their players are good and work well as a team. It's important for us to be focused and get the win."

Greece are without defender Vangelis Moras thanks to an ankle injury while the major injury doubt for Korea is Lee Dong-gook. The striker has recovered from a hamstring injury more quickly than coach Huh expected though won’t start. "Lee has improved a lot,” Huh said. “He may even play a little during the group opener with Greece.”

There are other issues to be resolved. With veteran goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae keep his place between the sticks despite a relative lack of form in 2010? Or will the much younger and lither Jung Sung-ryeong don the gloves? Who will partner Park Chu-young in attack assuming that coach Huh plays 4-4-2? Yeom Ki-hun of Suwon Bluewings looks likeliest to get the nod.

But we shall see the answers to those questions, and much more, on Saturday.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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