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International Friendlies Preview: Korea vs Russia and Morocco

After the Korean National Team trudged over the line to qualify for then 2020 World Cup, fans will be hoping for a more exciting performance in the upcoming friendlies than they saw against Iran and in the first half of the match against Uzbekistan. New KNT boss Shin Tae-yong also hinted that the national team will start to play better now that the tension of the qualifying campaign is behind them, which hopefully means a break from the ineffective narrow and direct football that we saw against the ten men of Iran.
(image via tasnimnews.com)

The national team are planning to play over ten friendlies between now and the World Cup, and the first two are against Russia and Morocco. A trip to Russia is a great move by the KFA, as it gives the team and background staff an idea of what to expect next summer in terms of facilities and logistics, which will hopefully help them prepare well for the finals. Morocco are only playing Korea because Tunisia pulled out, but they are only a few places below Korea in the FIFA rankings so should be a decent test. That match looks like it will be played in Switzerland, which will surely disappoint any fans and KFA officials who were dreaming of drinking champagne with George Clooney on a yacht in Cannes,… still Switzerland is nice too.

When picking the squad for these two friendlies, Shin Tae-yong selected European-based players in a gesture of thanks toward the K-League for rescheduling fixtures earlier in the season to accommodate Shin’s preparations for those two vital World Cup qualifiers. Such cooperation between the K-League and KFA is definitely a good sign, and is something that needs to happen more (in other ways like the KFA promoting the K-League) if Korean football is to develop. The move makes more sense when you consider both friendlies are taking place in Europe (although half the squad are coming from China and Japan), and that European-based players won’t be attending the upcoming East Asian Cup in December. Choosing players from just one of these two groups doesn’t help squad cohesion, but there are plenty more friendlies between now and the World Cup for Shin to work on that.

The squad list has some familiar names, but is also a chance for Shin Tae-yong to get a closer look at some players who may have been overlooked in a side containing K-League and foreign-based players. As well as Kim Seung-gyu and Kim Jin-hyun, Shin has selected 23 year-old ‘keeper Gu Sung-yun, who has been a regular at Consodole Sapporo over the last few seasons.

In defense, Borussia Dortmund’s Park Joo-ho has been (rightly) ignored in favour of an all Asian-based back line. Albirex Niigata’s Song Joo-hoon gets his first call-up and Gamba Osaka’s Oh Jae-suk returns to the side among some more familiar faces who play in the Chinese Super League. Former QPR man Yun Suk-young also returns to the squad after almost a year’s absence from the national team set-up, along with Rim Chang-woo who earned military exemption for half the national team by scoring the winning goal in the final of the 2014 Asian Games.

In midfield, Shin Tae-yong has brought back Lee Chung-yong despite a dreadful start to the season at Crystal Palace. As well as the usual choices, Kwon Kyung-won, who is having a great season at Tianjin Quanjian could be in line for a debut, perhaps in defense where he has played for a large part of this season. The thirty-year-old Hwang Il-so also may make a rare national team appearance. Critics of Shin’s previous selections of veterans Lee Dong-gook and Yeom Ki-hoon will be glad to know that Hwang is the oldest outfield player in the squad.

Up-front, Hwang Ui-jo makes a surprise return to the national team set-up. The Gamba Osaka forward struggled at Seongnam before his move to the J-League, and hasn’t been scoring regularly for Gamba either, so there’s certainly going to be some fans who are critical of his inclusion. He gets the nod over Suk Hyun-jun who is struggling to turn his career around at French side Troyes. Salzburg striker Hwang Hee-chan is out with a hamstring injury.

Many fans were expecting to see some younger players like Lee Seung-woo, Paek Seung-ho and Lee Jin-hyun in the squad. Lee Seung-woo made his Serie A debut for Hellas Verona last week and didn’t look too shabby, but having just joined a new club, it is probably better for him to work on playing regular competitive football. There are plenty of friendlies before the World Cup, and while these young players may be Korea’s future, they need regular playing time at club level before they can be effective internationally. Shin Tae-yong is right to keep them out of the squad for now.

After Korea’s recent internationals, there is already pressure on Shin Tae-yong to deliver exciting, winning football. It is perhaps lucky for him that these two matches will be happening on the other side of the world, so the performances won’t be in the spotlight as much as a home friendly might have been. Lots of Korean fans want Guus Hiddink to return to the national team in some capacity, so Shin Tae-yong might not have the time he deserves to make an impact on this team. Luckily for Shin, Kim Ho-gon and the rest of the KFA are keeping their cool, for now anyway, with Kim saying that it could take until March before the team really starts to perform.

Shin Tae-yong himself has said that with the Iran and Uzbekistan games, getting over the finish line was all that matters, and that now he has done that, he can start to develop his own side. Whatever happens against Russia and Morocco, it will still be too early to judge whether he is the man to lead Korea to success in the World Cup. Either way, Korea can be glad that they’re playing Russia and Morocco in the international break, rather than playing Australia.

By Steve Price

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