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The #KLeagueFM18 Challenges: The Road to Russia [Episode 4]

The K League Football Manager 2018 Project: The Road to Russia

After defying his critics with a superb showing against Syria, Matthew Binns' South Korea squad require just a single point from two games to guarantee qualification to the World Cup. With fixtures not being held until September however, can he keep his K League only team together through the transfer window without any players leaving to foreign shores?

The Challenge: The Road to Russia! Lead the Korean team to the 2018 World Cup and then put in a respectable performance. However, only players plying their trade in the K League can be called upon to represent their country.

Previous Instalments: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3

"You can't just leave him in there for two months!"

Ever the do-gooder, my assistant Lee Young-ik seems somewhat alarmed upon discovering that I have locked national team captain Lee Jae-sung in my office. Young-ik, seemingly unaware of what a possible summer sale would mean for my K League only national squad, says that his club may miss him. Given that Choi Kang-hee has just parted ways with Jeonbuk though after the club's poor form, and with pragmatist Kim Hak-bum touting himself for the helm, the risk of summer upheaval in North Jeolla is greater than ever.

"Let's discuss this over something to eat" I propose to my assistant, safe in the knowledge that there are enough lifestyle magazines and half a box of semi-melted Miniature Heroes to keep the attacking midfielder distracted for a few hours. We head out to the nearby galbitang restaurant and take a look at the task ahead.

With most managers relishing the prospect of the transfer window, given my remit to only select players from within the K League divisions, I am left anxiously refreshing the Korea Football News Twitter feed every five minutes, dreading an update reading that any of the players in my newly found winning formula have acquired ideas above their station about seeking pastures new.

There is also the faint hope that Korean players may have started to learn from my selection patterns; that their only hopes of an international call up is by returning to the peninsular. As for now though, Son Heung-min seems to be stubbornly choosing Totthenham over Bucheon 1995 FC. Give him time and he'll come around, I'm sure.

In the end however, I reluctantly agree to allow my captain to leave the office after having my ear chewed off by Young-ik about my treatment being inhumane. Fortunately though, Jae-sung is a good lad and sees the benefit of staying in Jeonju for just a bit longer.

In fact, all my players seem to realise that now would not be the best time to move abroad. The biggest move within the national team squad sees Daegu goalkeeper Cho Hyun-woo move to Jeonbuk, which ties in perfectly with my mostly neon green national team. However, it proves counterproductive as he winds up playing second fiddle to Hong Jong-nam, my current first choice after a string of injuries ravaged my squad ahead of the Syria game. With lack of minutes on the pitch, I am forced to reconsider his selection.

Some good news though is that Ju Se-jong has moved to Jeju United, pairing up with fellow national teamer Yoon Bit-garam in central midfield and gaining far more regular playing time than he was at league leaders FC Seoul. It should certainly strengthen their familiarity with one another, which can only serve to benefit my team.

With the capital club and nearby neighbours Suwon Bluewings running away with the title race, the upcoming "Super Match" at the Big Bird looks like a must-not-miss game, featuring a number of potential national team players. I call my personal assistant and have him book tickets for this top of the table six pointer.

The game turns out to be quite tight, as is often the case with this particular fixture. FC Seoul legend Dejan opens the scoring, goading the Bluewings supporters in his celebration. The Montenegrin bleeds red and black and certainly has no qualms in stoking this heated rivalry. It's not like he'd end up ever having to play for them anyway. Moments later, Yeom Ki-hoon taps in from close range, having been assisted by an exquisite through ball by Kim Min-woo. It is certainly pleasing to see two of the players in my squad playing well. I even notice the latter is featuring in central midfield, which is unusual given as I deploy him on the left wing, so it is useful to know he is adept at elsewhere on the field. The game ends in typical dramatic fashion, with youngster Yoo Ju-ahn appearing from off the bench to nod home the winner for the Bluewings, opening the title race up.

As the away trip to Uzbekistan nears, I start filing through my notes of the last sixty-odd days and start to make adjustments to my squad. I first decide to remove goalkeepers Yoo Hyun and Kim Young-kwang (aka 'Glory') as they were only in the last squad to make up numbers. I also remove Lee Dong-gook, Yun Il-lok and Han Chan-hee who are not getting nearly enough game time at their respective squads. In for these, I opt to call Seoul and Suwon goalkeepers Kang Hyun-moo and Yang Hyun-moo, choosing to leave Cho Hyun-woo at home after becoming a substitute at Jeonbuk. Han Kook-young, having recently moved to Suwon from Gangwon receives the nod in addition to Pohang striker Shim Dong-woon, who is currently the second highest Korean goalscorer in the league, behind Lee Keun-ho. For the final remaining place, I realise I need a right wing midfielder. As Seoul are currently leading the title race, and the player himself seems to have a solid average rating, I opt for Song Jin-hyung.

Of course the media and the public despair at my selections once again, but it is a pattern I am slowly becoming accustomed to. I field their questions and take a peruse at the Uzbekistan scout report left on my desk. It seems my opponents are good at passing and decision making but lack the accuracy on crosses to be of an aerial threat, especially as they only seem to win 57% of headers. It certainly would seem an ideal opportunity to deploy the Wookie once more. With the worst home form in the group, this seems our best opportunity of the two matches to confirm our qualification to the World Cup.

The first half proves to be pretty uneventful. We come in at 0-0 with a spurned Wookie chance from the edge of the area being our only opportunity from the exchanges. The play seems to be mostly breaking down in central midfield, with neither side able to win the battle. I inform the team of my focus to channel the ball down the flanks, ruling out the central midfield entirely, mumble some words of encouragement in my broken Korean, and send them back out onto the field of play.

It's certainly better, with marginally wide efforts from Lee Seung-gi and Han Kook-young offer Uzbekistan, and the traveling ultras behind the goal, some causes for concern. Come the hour mark, I make three substitutions to try and change things. Lee Seung-gi comes off, with Lee Jae-sung moving up into attacking midfield and Ha Dae-sung on to fill in the gap in central midfield. I haul the ineffective Wookie off for debutant Shim Dong-woon and hand another debut to Song Jin-hyung who replaces Lee Keun-ho.

With almost immediate effect, the substitutes break the deadlock in scintillating fashion. Han Kook-young's corner is initially cleared, but only as far as the lurking Ha Dae-sung, who beats the defender to the ball and knocks to an incoming Han Kook-young. Han, passing it first time, threads it through the defenders to Shim Dong-woon who turns first time to shoot and take the lead, sending the traveling support into raptures.

Uzkbekistan hit back, placing us under pressure, but the defence holds strong, with Oh Ban-suk putting a particularly impressive display to ensure the result remains in our favour. We hold on and claim victory, qualifying for the World Cup with a game to spare. We even have a chance to retake first place if results fall in our favour in the final round.

The media and board seem relatively pleased with my progress, and even my players are heaping adoration on me. Goalscorer Shim Dong-wook is perhaps the most effusive, thanking me for a debut he thought he would never get. It doesn't take much to win me over, so I quickly pencil him in to the start against Qatar after he leaves my office.

Kim Jin-su returns to the starting line up from suspension, and I also hand a start to Song Jin-hyung in addition to Shim for his positive contribution against Uzbekistan. The atmosphere in Seoul World Cup Stadium is of a celebratory nature, but I urge my team to keep focused to stand a chance of stealing first in the group.

Again, it a lifeless first half, with just a solitary shot on target from distance. It seems are are attacks down the left are being somewhat scuppered, with Qatar heavily marking Kim Min-woo at every turn. With Song Jin-hyung looking as if he has the freedom to roam on the opposite flank, I instruct the lads to focus distribution solely down that channel.

Within five minutes the deadlock is broken. Surprisingly, despite hoping to switch distribtuion, it is Kim min-woo on the left who provides, taking the ball to the byline and swinging in for Song Jin-hyung to volley in from close range.

Two minutes later and it is two! Han Kook-young picks up the loose ball from the corner and drives into the box, back heeling to Kim Min-woo who lashes in at the near post. The rout is completed in the 80th minute when Kim Jin-su sends in a long cross which is thwacked in by Song Jin-hyung once more at the far post.

The press are ecstatic and the fans buoyant. We did not finish first, as Iran made sure to pick up the three points they needed, but it does not matter. With the last three performances in this group being so convincing, their is hope that my team of K League players may avoid embarrassment in the World Cup finals next June.

Next up are friendlies against Belgium and Egypt, before a week long trip to Japan in December for the EAFF E-1 Championship. There is also the small matter of the World Cup draw to look forward, but for now myself, Wookie and Kook-young have a wild night of soju and norae bang ahead of us to celebrate.

The K League is going to Russia!

Fancy trying your own #KLeagueFM18 adventure? See what ten K League specific challenges we suggest and register your best efforts by clicking here.

This piece draws it's form and inspiration from the FM Project by The Set Pieces. You can read their latest series here.

Gaming on K League United is proudly sponsored by Retro Gaming Bar in Hongdae, Seoul. Make sure you follow them on Facebook and Twitter

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