Sunday, February 15, 2009

Two Koreas Thriving In Group Of Death

Two Koreas Thriving In Group Of Death.
The Group of Death doesn’t seem so scary after all – though the supposed nightmare is only half over. With four down and four to go in the final round of qualification for the 2010 World Cup, South Korea sits on top of Group Two with eight points. The latest point of the octet came courtesy of a 1-1 draw against Iran in Tehran on Wednesday evening.

The hard part is over - or it should be. Three times have South Korea ventured overseas to the home of its three biggest rivals Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea (OK, that game was played in Shanghai and not Pyongyang) and the Taeguk Warriors came away with a win and two draws. With three of the remaining four matches to take place at Sangam, Huh Jung-moo's men are on course for a seventh successive appearance on the global stage.

Prior to the match in Tehran, there had been much talk in the media beforehand, more than is usual in Asian football. A lot of it came from the Iranian side, a symptom perhaps of the host’s greater need to win. Whatever the reason, Korea, as the cliché goes, did its talking on the pitch. It may not have been especially articulate or make for pleasant listening but it was full of passion and a statement was made. It was a deserved point for the visitors.

Park Ji-sung, who scored his second goal in three games for the national team, headed home with nine minutes left after Javad Nekounam had put Iran ahead with a fantastic free-kick 20 minutes earlier.

It doesn’t mean that a place in South Africa is a given. Much work is still to be done but coach Huh Jung-moo would have definitely accepted an offer of eight points from the first four games if such a offer had been on the table a few months ago.

"It is only half-time,” said the happy Huh as he stepped through the arrivals gate at Incheon International Airport on Friday. “It was a tough game but it is behind us now. We are focused on the task ahead. The good thing about the games that we have played so far is that injuries have given the younger players a chance and they have grown as players as a result.”

We are now looking at the game against North Korea. We will do our best to prepare well. The team may be a defensive one but it does have the likes of Jong Tae-se and Hong Yong-jo in attack.”

For fans of the beautiful game in the Korean peninsula, it was a good week. Before the Tehran tussle, North Korea defeated traditional Asian powerhouse Saudi Arabia 1-0 in Pyongyang to take second place in the group. It was an insipid performance by the visitors in the Kim Il Sung stadium, though the various layers of clothing worn couldn’t have helped.

If the qualifying stage ended now, the two Koreas would be heading to the 2010 World Cup. For North Korea it would be only a second appearance at the global tournament and if the teams from both sides of the 38th Parallel made it to the world cup, one can only imagine the effect it would have on the Seoul media. Offices in Yeoido and Gwanghwamun would explode.

The Taeguk Warriors are not in action for the next round of qualification on March 28.The players will be able to take a rest and watch rivals do battle elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, who sits in fourth place with four points, travels to Iran where another defeat will almost certainly end chances of a fifth successive World Cup. South Korea would be delighted for the Saudis to take a point from that match. On the same evening, North Korea hosts bottom team UAE. A win for DPRK would likely see the team go top of the group.

That would set things up nicely for a game in Seoul three days later between north and south. It will be some game.

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile

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