Monday, September 8, 2008

Shanghai Surprise? Not Likely...

North an south meet again
South Korea restarts its journey on the road to South Africa and the 2010 World Cup tonight in Shanghai. Pyongyang was supposed to be the location but the qualifier against North Korea has been moved to China as the communist authorities in the DPRK capital refused to fly the Taegukki or play the Aegukga.

It is the final round of qualification for the quadrennial football-fest. South Korea has participated in the last six tournaments and failure to make it a magnificent seventh doesn’t bear thinking about for footy-lovers in a nation that is currently bananas about baseball. The loss of prestige, sponsorships, experience, money and jobs would hit Korean football hard.

Ten Asian nations, in football terms this includes Australia, have been split into two groups of five. The top two in each group automatically book their berths in South Africa. The two third-place teams face each other for the right to take on Oceania’s representative, probably New Zealand, in a winners-takes-all play-off match. On paper, North Korea is the weakest team in the group but it won 2-1 against the UAE in Abu Dhabi last weekend to get its campaign off to a good start. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the other two members of the group and drew 1-1 in Riyadh.

Against North Korea tonight and the next match, at home to UAE in October, the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists need to get some points on the board before the two toughest tests –long and tricky trips to Tehran and Riyadh.

North korea players in training

That is in the future. Now is all about the North Koreans. Unlike the general populace either side of the 38th Parallel, the respective sets of players know each other very well. After not playing at all from 1993-2002, there have been three Korean Derbies so far in 2008 alone. All three finished in ties and while a similar result in Shanghai wouldn’t be a disaster, it would be slightly disappointing. Coach Huh Jung-moo wants victory.

“It is always the same before a big game, we are naturally looking for the win,” Huh told reporters. “As the first game of the final round of qualifying, a victory against North Korea would mean a lot.”

The squad he has selected may not feature European stars such as Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung, Seol Ki-hyeon of Fulham, Borussia Dortmund’s Lee Young-pyo and Park Chu-young of AS Monaco but it does look fresh, young and, dare one say, almost exciting.

A 1-0 victory in Seoul against Jordan last Friday in a warm-up match wasn’t bad at all –though there were few fans there to witness it. There was some slick passing, nice moves and encouraging performances especially from the twinkle-toed teenager Lee Chung-young. The FC Seoul star scored his first goal in the national shirt and is steadily becoming one of the stars of the soccer scene in South Korea.

“It is frustrating that we didn’t score more goals,” coach Huh said after the match. “The players also know that they need to try and score more goals. It was a good workout for us before the North Korea match. Now we are looking forward what should be a good game.”

It probably won’t be. The two meetings in the previous round of qualification which took place in March and June respectively produced a total of no goals and not many more opportunities. North Korea is a team that defends and defends well and it showed against UAE that it can also be ruthless in attack - something that southern strikers have not been accused of for some time.

But even so, a poor result and the pressure will be on coach Huh for the visit of UAE to Seoul in October. If that poor result stretches into a poor start, his job will be on the line. Even a defeat in Shanghai will start nerves jangling inside the Korean Football Association.

The hard work starts now.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com


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