Sunday, June 7, 2009

Magnificent Seven For Clinical South Korea

South Korea.
It really is a magnificent seven. Asia’s most successful team has booked a place at the World Cup yet again. South Korea defeated UAE 2-0 in the early hours of Sunday morning Seoul time to seal a place in South Africa.

First, the details. It was a comfortable win against the bottom team of the group. Park Chu-young finished well after eight minutes to put the Taeguk Warriors on their way. Eight minutes before half-time, Ki Sung-yung took advantage of a goalkeeping mistake to make it 2-0. The host, with one point from a previous six matches, was never likely to recover and thanks to the fact that Iran and North Korea tied 0-0 earlier in the day, it was enough.

The Group of Death has not been too tough for the South Koreans. After uncertain performances in the third round of qualification, vying with traditional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as a tough North Korean team for the two automatic qualification places had more than a few officials worried.

The Korean Football Association certainly was but those fears have been misplaced over six games. Impressively, in such a tough group, there are still two games left to come. Both of these are in Seoul over the next few days as Saudi Arabia and then Iran come to the Land of the Morning Calm desperate for points.

Now, coach Huh has earned the luxury of two competitive matches against tough and committed opposition in which to start looking ahead to South Africa. He will not make many changes and will be looking to defeat both visitors in order to lend a helping hand to the team from the other side of the 38th Parallel.

"I personally hope that North Korea can qualify with us to the finals because it will be the first time in World Cup history to have this," a smiling Huh told reporters after the match.

"I'm really happy that we made it to the World Cup finals. We played well and we are all satisfied with a performance that saw us win and ensure a place in South Africa in 2010.

"I'm really honored to lead the team to the World Cup mainly because I'm Korean and this is really good for me. We now have two games [against Saudi Arabia and Iran] and hopefully we can continue our good form. The players were excellent throughout the qualifiers and they did a great job."

The praise is merited. A lacklustre opening draw against North Korea in Shanghai last September had the knives out for the coach who was seen as an underwhelming appointment back in December 2007. But since that tepid tie; the team hasn’t looked back. In October came an emphatic 4-1 win at home to UAE, helped by two goals from new star striker Lee Keun-ho.

Lee was on target the following month as South Korea collected its best result of the entire campaign – a 2-0 win at the home of Saudi Arabia. It was a close match and the visitor wasn’t without luck. What had changed though is the ability to take advantage of that fortune. It was a first win against Saudi Arabia in 19 years and did wonders for confidence.

Once again though, it was a result that had to be built upon and that is what happened. The next game was a hard-fought 1-1 tie with Iran in front of 80,000 fans in Tehran. It was another good result and was followed by a tight 1-0 win at home to North Korea in April.

There is now a year before the start of the 2010 World Cup. It is encouraging to see that South Korea look a better and more settled team now than it did at the start of qualification over a year ago.

Young players like Lee Chung-yung and Ki Sung-yung have come in and looked good. Players not much older such as Park Chu-young and Lee Keun-ho are starting to settle in the red shirt and while there are still problems that need attention, there is time for all that.

Copyright: John Duerden &

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