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The #KLeagueFM18 Challenges: The Road to Russia [Episode 5]

The K League Football Manager 2018 Challenges - The Road to Russia

With World Cup qualification achieved, Matthew Binns takes his all K League Korea national team to Japan to take part in the EAFF E-1 East Asian Cup. First however, there is the small matter of the World Cup group draw.

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, Episode 4

The opening speeches at the Kremlin Palace seem to be taking forever as I watch it live from the bar in my Tokyo hotel.

It's been three months since qualifying for the World Cup yet any goodwill I had formed has quickly diminished thanks to two less than stellar October friendlies against Belgium and Egypt, with scorelines finishing 4-1 and 3-0 in favour of my opponents. It perhaps underlines the magnitude of the task in front of me. With our world ranking having slipped to 41st, we are fortunate to be here and could very well be embarrassed on the global stage next summer.

Now, on the eve of the EAFF E-1 East Asian Cup, reports are filtering through that the KFA may seek a more capable replacement, something I expect will be seriously considered if tonight's World Cup draw ends unfavourably.

With the speeches finally drawing to a close, Diego Maradonna, tightly packed into a black shirt and suit combo whilst being choked by a bright yellow bow tie, appears on stage to commence the draw.

His face as he reads out our name is filled with unbridled content. He knows his beloved Argentina have guaranteed themselves at least three points. In fact, representatives from all teams in our group have. The look of horror on the KFA bigwigs' faces speaks for itself. We will have to fight our way through a group containing Argentina, Croatia and the USA if we are to come out of this tournament looking semi-respectable.

To save time, the supporters may as well go to Incheon Airport and throw 'yeot' at us before we leave.

The morning news in Korea continues its tirade against me, with reporters at the stadium interested to know if the pressure will be getting to me or the team. Luckily I avoid having to explain why Son Heung-min continues to be benched as this tournament is off the FIFA calendar and thus only players from leagues no longer in season can be selected.

Speaking of which, there have been some notable changes to my squad since the delirious celebrations in September. Whilst centre backs Oh Ban-suk and Kwak Tae-hwi are out with long term injuries, I have taken the decision to remove goalkeepers Hong Jeong-nam (Jeonbuk) and Yang Hyun-moo (FC Seoul), defenders Shin Kwang-hoon (FC Seoul) and Jang Ho-ik (Suwon), and midfielders Ha Dae-sung (FC Seoul), Yeom Ki-hoon (Suwon) and Lee Keun-ho (Gangwon). The reasoning is partially based due to their lack of game time for their respective clubs, but also because some were culpable in embarrassing me against the Belgian and Egyptian sides.

Despite recently winning the league for the second season in a row*, I only call up one additional FC Seoul player, Lee Myung-joo, to join his remaining club teammates Kang Hyun-moo, Song Jin-hyung and Ju Se-jong. I also call up Cho Hyun-woo (GK) from Jeonbuk, Yeon Jei-min (DF) from Jeonnam, Hong Chul (DF) from FA Cup winners Sangju, Ryu Seung-woo (MF) from Jeju, Pohang's Kim Seung-dae (MF) as well as Koo Ja-ryong (DF) and Kang sang-woo (MF) from league runners-up Suwon Bluewings.

Korea Team for the EAFF E-1 East Asian Cup
GKCho Hyun-wooJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
GKKang Hyun-mooFC Seoul
DFKoo Ja-ryongSuwon Bluewings
DFYeon Jei-minJeonnam Dragons
DFKim Min-jaeJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
DFLee YongJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
DFKim Jin-suJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
DFChoi Chul-soonJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
DFKim Min-wooSuwon Bluewings
DFHong ChulSangju Sangmu
MFKang Sang-wooSuwon Bluewings
MFSong Jin-hyungFC Seoul
MFHan Kook-youngSuwon Bluewings
MFJu Se-jongSuwon Bluewings
MFLee Myung-jooFC Seoul
MFYoon Bit-garamJeju United
MFLee Seung-giJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
MFLee Jae-sungJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
MFRyu Seung-wooJeju United
FWKim Seung-daePohang Steelers
FWKim Shin-wookJeonbuk Hyundai Motors
FWShim Dong-woonPohang Steelers

Our first match is against our northern neighbours, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in a game that should prove straight forward enough on paper, yet a match that has historically tended to be a rather tight affair. I select a team with few surprises, though the inclusion of Kang Sang-woo on the right and the reinstatement of Cho Hyun-woo between the sticks are likely to grab the headlines.

So much for it being tight! Within a minute, Seoul midfielder Lee Myung-joo collects a cleared ball on the edge of the area and fires an unstoppable shot beyond the North Korean goalkeeper to take the lead. Two minutes later and the lead is doubled. A defence splitting pass from attacking midfield Lee Seung-gi plays through the Wookie who, somewhat uncharacteristically, calmly slots past the onrushing keeper.

By the twelfth minute, we have our third. Again, it is another edge of the area shot but this time fired in from Bluewings winger Kim Min-woo. With the game looking beyond doubt we resort to slowing down the tempo knowing that we have two harder matches coming up within the next seven days. We do squeeze a fourth in moments after half-time via Lee Seung-gi pouncing on a defensive mistake but the rest of the match plays out in a fairly comfortable manner however, and we secure a much needed three points.

Next up is China, and there is an element of revenge to this fixture after they threatened to derail our qualification back in March. Given the showing against North Korea though, and also that a comfortable win against China will more or less put a hand on the title ahead of the climatic showdown against Japan, I opt for a similar squad to try and guarantee the points.

The only disadvantage to playing a similar side is the risk of opponents being able to scout you easier and, somewhat predictably, so it proves. Similar to our friendly in March, we dominate the match but find ourselves trailing. Lin Linwei, lurking at the far post, taps in a cross after 'keeper Cho Hyun-woo flaps at a defendable cross, punching the air and leaving his net empty for the Chinese midfielder to convert.

There is a sense of deja vu as China quickly retreat to their own half and look to stifle our build up play in a bid to keep hold of their slim lead. A quick word with my staff brings to light our soft centre where we seem to be losing the ball an awful lot. I take the initiative to swap Lee Seung-gi and Lee Myung-joo from CM to AM respectively with the hope that the FC Seoul midfielder can get a grip on the game.

We continue to struggle however, forcing me to make a triple substitution not long after the hour mark. Kang Sang-woo is removed from the right wing and replaced with Rye Seung-woo, Kim Seung-dae replaces Lee Myung-joo in the centre of the park, whilst The Wookie is hauled off and replaced by Shim Dong-woon up top, having proved unable to win a header against a defence he is much taller than. Ten minutes later and I've changed to a 4-4-2 with Kim Seung-dae joining Shim in attack.

We are getting increasingly desperate, with showers of crosses being sent into the Chinese penalty area in the hope something comes off. Eventually, right back Lee Yong curls in a cross to the far post which is met by Kim Seung-dae on the volley.

With the scores back level, we continue to push knowing that Japan is currently thrashing North Korea and we will need any advantage we can get going into the final game. The second goal never comes though and we are forced to settle for a draw, knowing that victory against top seeds Japan is the only way to win the tournament.

Regardless of the worth of this competition, a match against Japan is always a big occasion for Korea and the thought of defeating them, on their own turf, and then lifting silverware is certainly capturing the interest back home.

Back in Japan, our captain Lee Jae-sung is struggling with fitness, having given it his all in the previous two outings. I take the bold step to drop him for this encounter, installing the experienced Han Kook-young alongside Lee Myung-joo in the centre with the hope of gaining control of the midfield. Song Jin-hyung makes a return to the right wing also as Kang Sang-woo is also in poor condition. Kim Seung-dae is given the responsibility of leading the attack after his equalising heroics in our final encounter, and I also remove Cho Hyun-woo from goal after his error cost us two points.

The first twenty minutes or so are fairly tentative, with neither side wishing to show their hand too early in this bitter rivalry. After having been subbed on early though through an early injury for Japan's striker Mitsuo Yamada, it is Taiki Satô who breaks the deadlock. Unfortunately for the striker though, he plundered the ball into his own net after Lee Myung-joo's volley ricocheted off his knee.

With a goal lead, I start telling my team to start playing it safe, refraining from venturing too far forward and leaving space for Japan to play into. We hold on until half-time but we are very much the weaker of the two teams. I react by demanding even more control of the ball from my side and to keep passes short and away from danger.

The regression only undermines us though. Having rarely ventured from this attack minded tactic during my tenure, the players look incapable of stifling an opponent, with it proving costly in the 52nd minute when Hiroya Miyabe equalises.

I respond, as is becoming custom, by taking three players off. Wookie, Kang Sang-woo and Yoon Bit-garam are all introduced for Kim Seung-dae, Song Jin-hyung and Lee Myung-joo respectively. I also tell my players to revert back to pushing forward and being more direct in their passing mentality in a bid to get the victory we desperately need. A draw will not suffice.

Almost immediately, Kim min-jae launches a ball from deep, picking out Han Kook-young who in turn carries the ball on its central trajectory to Kim Shin-wook. The Wookie knocks it out to Kang Sang-woo who passes it straight to Lee Seung-gi to tap in. In one swift move we have reclaimed the lead with twenty minutes to spare!

Things continue at intense pace for both sides, with play switching quickly from end-to-end. The players look shattered and, with five minutes to go, I urge them to retreat and hold on.

Four minutes later and there's a goal. Rather than it be the gut-punching equaliser that would see us finish second though, we catch Japan on the break and win a free kick in a dangerous area. Before I can yell for Lee Seung-gi to play it to the corner, he has picked out his Jeonbuk teammate Kim Shin-wook who nods it down for Yoon Bit-garam to poke in!

With twenty seconds to spare, and celebrations beginning to take place in the stands. Lee Seung-gi goes on a driving run toward the byline, yanks it back into the box, picking out The Wookie once more who bundles in the fourth in typical fashion.

We have won it! South Korea 4. Japan 1.

As confetti pours from the stadium rafters, it is hard not to feel relieved. Given the low confidence the board and fans had in me prior to this tournament, this victory over arch rivals should cement my position through until the World Cup in June.

Despite the low reputation of the competition, the wonders it could do for morale both within the squad and the nation could work wonders ahead of what is set to be a very difficult World Cup. Preparations will need to be made, and genuine thought put into friendly selection and which players will be boarding the plane. There's also a winter transfer window to survive, with the worry being that the team that has won today could catch the eyes of scouts outside Korea in the winter.

For now though, it's time to celebrate. We are the champions of East Asia!

Next time: World Cup preparations get underway, the final squad is selected for Russia and there is a interesting new member (or two) to the backroom team...

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

*FC Seoul only won the league in 2016 because Jeonbuk were docked nine points for bribery offences three seasons prior.

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