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Preview: Korea vs Colombia

Korea’s preparations for Russia 2018 haven’t gone as well as hoped, with defeats to Russia and Morocco in Korea’s first two friendly matches. Next up are home games against Colombia in Suwon on Friday, and Serbia in Ulsan the following Tuesday. To preview the Colombia match, our FIFA reporter for the Korean National Team, Steve Price, spoke to Colombian football expert Dan Davis, and the Bogota Post's Sports Editor Freek Huigen.

Questions on the Colombian National Team

Steve Price: How have Colombia performed during qualifying? Any problems or was it relatively straight-forward?

Dan Davis: Colombia qualified for Russia 2018 after finishing fourth in the CONMEBOL standings, but only reached the tournament after a 1-1 draw with Peru in the final match day. Their fourth place finish, behind the likes of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina was to be expected, as the quality of the three named teams is slightly above what Colombia have to choose from in their squads. However, Colombia have certainly recorded an impressive defensive record in qualifying for Russia, after conceding 19 goals in 18 games, which becomes even more impressive when compared to other nations, such as Ecuador and Peru conceding 29 and 26 goals respectively. Qualifying was far from easy, but they have booked their place for the 2018 World Cup and that, of course, was the expected end result.

Freek Huigen: The South American qualification in general was a roller coaster ride and Colombia was in the middle of it. Chances changed with every international break and apart from Brazil, none of the teams had a straight forward qualification. The first rounds were average and 3-0 away defeats against Uruguay and Argentina raised serious doubts about the quality of the side, but they picked up the points where they needed to, with an away win on 3.600 metres altitude in La Paz, Bolivia and claiming most of the home games. Colombia plays all their home qualifiers in a boiling hot Barranquilla at 3:30pm when the sun is still torturing the players, something they supposedly handle better than most of the other teams in the region, but it turned out less of an advantage than expected in this qualifying cycle. A 2-0 away win on 2.800 metre in Quito, Ecuador brought them on the edge with four games to go, but their form slumped and they just about dragged it over the finish line with a difficult away draw in Peru.

Steve: Which Colombia players should we look out for? Are there any great up-and-coming players in the side that'll be household names in a few years' time?

Dan: Colombia have one of the world’s most talented playmakers at their disposal in James Rodriguez, and the Real Madrid star has been key throughout the qualifying campaign in both scoring and setting up chances. However, aside from James, the nation is blessed with a variety of attacking talent. Carlos Bacca, currently plying his trade in Villareal, has scored three goals during qualifying, and his constant attacking threat up front played a large factor in leading his country to the World Cup. However, the surprising factor in the squad has been Edwin Cardona. Cardona is an attacking midfielder, and currently plays for Boca Juniors in Argentina. His tally of three goals and a single assist doesn’t exactly flatter the player, but his work rate off the ball has played a large role in his side’s qualification. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Cardona earn a well-deserved move to Europe soon, and as he is only 24 years old is certainly one to look out for.

Freek: It was expected that the visitors were leaving the majority of their European based players at home, but from the strongest side only Falcao is missing due to injury. Quality football in Colombia comes from James Rodríguez. Despite his reserve role at Real Madrid he has by far been Colombia's best player in this qualifying cycle. His move to Bayern Munich hasn't gone as smooth as expected, but he is slowly making his name in the starting XI. In his Madrid years, James always needed to prove himself in the international games, as he didn't get enough playing time in Spain, as long as he isn't a certain starter yet in Bayern I expect him to stay hungry for approval in the national team.

The revelation of 2017 has undoubtedly been Davinson Sánchez. The qualifying cycle showed that Colombia doesn't have an established duo at centre back since captain Mario Yepes retired in 2014. Jeison Murillo seemed to fill that void when he was chosen as best young talent at the Copa América 2015 in Chile, but the defence stayed extremely vulnerable and Murillo has been ignored this year. Davinson's debut versus Argentina in 2016 (3-0 defeat) wasn't very good, he looked nervous and a brilliant Messi tore them apart, but since he signed at Tottenham his combination of pace and strength have also improved the Colombian defence significantly and more is expected from the 21-year-old defender.

Steve: How will Colombia likely to approach this game? What formation might they use? How seriously are they taking this friendly?

Dan: Colombia will be approaching the friendly vs Korea with the end result of gaining a victory, but also a chance to regain some confidence. Recent results for the nation haven’t been good, and with only one win in their last five matches, something has to change for Colombia before the World Cup. The expected formation is a 4-2-3-1, which allows James Rodriguez to have his usual tactical flexibility in the role behind the lone striker. Carlos Bacca and Edwin Cardona will link up as usual, but the additions of the likes of Eder Balanta, Juan Cuadrado, Davinson Sanchez and the talented Manchester City starlet, Marlos Moreno, are also expected to make appearances. One thing is for certain, and that is that Colombia will not be taking this friendly lightly.

Freek: Pekerman didn't seem very interested in playing these friendlies, but there is too much money involved for the federation, so they take to Asia for this round of friendlies. It seemed a chance for some up and coming players, but it is mainly the same side again, Colombia tends to play in a 4-2-3-1, with James either on 10 or as a free LW, but their latest qualifier saw a 4-2-2-2 to create space for a big man up front next to Falcao. With the AS Monaco striker not available it is unlikely they'll follow up on that in Asia.

I don't think they will take this friendly too serious, but for the Colombian fans that doesn't count. If they lose this game, fans and journalists will call it a disgrace for the nation and diminish their national team's chances to even go through the group stage at the World Cup. It is very well possible that a few of the top players will be left out to give some of the less used players a chance, Pekerman doesn't often stick to the same XI and it is not unlikely he'll use many of his players between the games against Korea and China.

Steve: What are Colombian fans' expectations for the World Cup? Can they win the whole thing?

Dan: Fans’ expectations for the World Cup are more hope than anything. It’s expected that the nation progresses through their group, and a potential run to the quarter-finals shouldn’t be ruled out. The expectation of winning the World Cup simply isn’t a realistic one at this time, despite the talent currently in the squad, but there is a hope that the team can push on and make their nation proud.

Freek: Four years ago, in their first World Cup since 1998, to make it to the quarterfinals was very much to the fans liking, Colombia had lost Falcao due to injury and that lowered the expectations significantly, but that will be different this year. This year I don't think fans will expect nothing less than the quarterfinals, but winning the title is not realistic and the majority of fans do know that.

Colombia has lots of quality in their side, but winning the World Cup seems a step too far. They are not a top 8 team at the moment and it depends on the draw and a bit of luck how much further they will go into the tournament.

Questions on the Korean National Team

Freek Huigen:  How was Korea's qualification? Are they a team to take into account for the final stages of the World Cup? 

Steve Price: Korea stumbled over the line with a goalless draw in their final qualification game against Uzbekistan. There is generally an expectation that Korea will cruise to qualification (despite struggling over the line quite a few times in the past) so when they struggled this time around, coach Uli Stielike was sacked with two games remaining. Shin Tae-yong came in and drew those two games nil-nil which, with other results going Korea’s way, was just enough for the Taeguk Warriors to grab the second automatic qualification spot for Russia 2018. Despite their qualification struggles, fans won’t accept a repeat of the 2014 World Cup where they finished bottom of their group with just a single point.

Dan Davis: Who are the key players currently in the Korean national team squad? Are any of them currently playing in big leagues, or expected to make that breakthrough any time in the future?

Steve: The team revolves around Premier League stars Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yeung. So much so that players look to Son Heung-min to deliver, making it easy for the opposition to shut Korea down at times. At Spurs, he is part of a great attacking line-up but with the focus solely on him for the national team, he is under too much pressure and it affects his game. Kwon Chang-hoon is having a good start to the season at Dijon in League 1, and Kwon Kyung-won has just had a solid season for Tianjin in China, so for me, these two players (plus Jeonbuk defender Kim Min-jae, who isn’t in the squad for these friendlies) are the next ones to make an impression outside of Korea.

Freek: There have been some Colombian players in the Korean league, how is their reputation? Does Korea look up to Colombia? 

Steve: There were quite a few a decade or so back, but the player most K-League fans will remember is Molina who played for FC Seoul. Based on their awful performances this season, Seoul are in desperate need of a player like Molina. Korean fans will be looking forward to seeing stars like James Rodriguez, even if they aren’t particularly infatuated with their own national team at the moment.

Dan: How is the state of Korean national football? Do the nation expect to win tournaments?

Steve: Korean football is going through a bit of a crisis, with scandal after scandal seeming to hit the KFA. Part of this is due to alleged corruption and nepotism, but some is also due to the gap between fan expectations and reality. The latest scandal involved a text message from Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach who earned ‘legend’ status in Korea after guiding them to the 2002 World Cup semi-finals. He sent a message supposedly testing the water about the Korean National Team job, which the KFA allegedly tried to keep from the public. The head of the KFA had to resign because of this. Of course, hiring Hiddink won’t solve all the problems with Korean football, but Koreans expect a strong performance in the World Cup and don’t really see the current coach achieving that.

Freek: Are there many changes expected for this game compared to their usual team, will they be experimenting?

Steve: There doesn’t seem to be much experimentation in the line-up, despite the recent poor performances. One choice that is not popular among Korean fans is Lee Jeong-hyup. He plays in the second tier of Korean football, and didn’t impress in his short spell in the first tier. Former manager Uli Stielike surprised fans by picking him for the Asian Cup, but was vindicated as Lee helped Korea reach the final for the first time in decades. Since then, fans claimed that Stielike kept him in the side because he was ‘stubborn’ and ‘trying to make a point about the lack of Korean strikers’. With Lee Jeong-hyup so closely linked with the previous manager’s failings, his inculsion by Shin Tae-yong is a huge surprise, especially as the two highest scoring Koreans in the K-League, Yang Dong-hyun and Joo Min-kyu, both miss out on a call-up once again.

Korea take on Colombia at 8 p.m. Friday at the Suwon World Cup Stadium.

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