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The #KLeagueFM18 Challenges: The Road to Russia [Episode 6]

The K League Football Manager 2018 Challenges: The Road to the Russia World Cup

With the nation jubilant after sticking it to rivals Japan in the East Asian Cup, the KFA hope to ride this wave of positivity into the upcoming World Cup and the awaiting group of death. With not long to go, Korea manager Matthew Binns must now set about selecting his final K League-only squad for Russia.

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, Episode 5

"What do you mean they don't want to play us?!"

I kick my desk to vent my frustration, knocking off the silver trophy I collected last month. As it hits the laminated floor, the left handle snaps off and slides across the room, eventually resting at the feet of my visibly shaken assistant manager Lee Young-ik.

"They said that facing our team would not be ample preparation for the World Cup" he stammers.

Annoyed, I slump back into my office chair. A friendly against Portugal would have been a perfect pre-tournament test for my side. Instead, we are left with just the single non-competitive fixture against Tunisia in March.

"See if you can find anyone else." I reply and with that, Lee nods his head and shuffles out of the room.

After winning the EAFF E-1 East Asian Cup in December, the whole nation has been getting behind the team and the K League only selection policy. There have been no more calls for Son Heung-min, no more cries for Ki Sung-yueng and no more ridiculous pleas for various bench warmers across the European continent.

Not only this, but South Korea also claimed success in the U-23 Asian Cup last week, also using a strict policy of K League only players. K League is en vogue. Even the players in my team have stopped considering moving overseas meaning there's no need to imprison anymore midfielders in my office while the transfer window is open.

With winter proving colder than ever, I opt to take as many away trips as I can during the early stages of the Asian Champions League, following Suwon to Melbourne to see them taste victory against Victory in a convincing 3-1 display, with Koo Ja-ryeong being the stand out performer for the Korean side.

I detour back to Korea via Japan and witness Jeonbuk also win by the same scoreline against Hiroshima. This time it was last season's top goalscorer and EAFF hero Kim Shin-wook claiming the limelight, along with another assist from Lee Seung-gi. Both are looking central to my plans at the moment.

As I arrive back in a slowly thawing Incheon, I'm greeted by news on the friendly front. Lee Young-ik has been making some calls and has arranged a "send-off week" a fortnight prior to our first group game. The week will include visits to Korea from Holland (world ranking: 20th), Wales (world ranking: 32nd), and Italy (world ranking: 4th) in what is sure to be three morale-crushing defeats that will put my then broken squad in the perfect frame of mind to accept drubbings from Croatia, Argentina and the USA.

However, there is first an away trip to Tunisia lined up for March which I can at least enjoy. I feel there is little need to change the squad too much from that which triumphed in Tokyo, so I give them all a call and tell them we're getting the band back together and heading on tour for a week to continue our celebrations.

It's not until we land at our destination though that I realise we've left youngster Kim Min-jae back in Korea, having let him head over to creche unsupervised in the departure lounge to have a go on the slide. I decide to make do with the two centre backs I have, Choi Chul-soon and Koo Ja-ryong, and set up the team in our preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. With barely little time with the squad or friendlies to work on tactics, I have decided to just keep things familiar. With that formation both having recently proved successful for us, and also being widely used by teams throughout the K League, it makes sense not to overcomplicate matters.

The game itself is actually not too bad. We don't dominate proceedings but we are certainly not outplayed by our opponents. More concerningly, the chances we are creating are being spurned, mostly by The Wookie. He has certainly had better days for his country. However, somewhat typically, we manage to concede in injury time after substitute Youssef Msanki breaks the offside trap and pokes it past an exposed Cho Hyun-woo to send the home fans back singing. It was a cruel end to what was an encouraging display. I tell the lads not to worry and let them have the evening off to enjoy their final night in Tunisia.

With just over two months until our string of friendlies, I decide to take in as many matches as possible just to make sure I leave no stone unturned ahead of my World Cup squad selection.

I decide to head to Jeonju where I watch first place Jeonbuk, the nucleus of my Korean squad, get destroyed by reigning champions FC Seoul to the tune of four goals to one, with my backup striker and former Pohang star Shim Dong-woon scoring a hattrick for the capital club. After the match, there are calls for me to consider dropping my captain Lee Jae-sung from the national setup given his poor form this season.

I acknowledge the article, but refuse to apply its advice based on the articles source and deem it fake news. The next day, after a night out in Jeonbuk University, I wearily head on the next coach to Pohang, nursing quite the hangover, to take in their home match against Ulsan. My main purpose of my visit south, besides the warmer temperatures, is to check in on my other striker Kim Seung-dae. However, I left being impressed by an Ulsan squad whose players have been overlooked in my recent squad selections. The visitors ran out 3-1 victors with a particularly great performance from attacking midfielder Jeong Jae-young, who picked up an assist and a goal during the game.

It proved to be a performance so riveting, that I decide to extend my stay in the south, heading to Ulsan to watch them host last year's runners up Suwon, giving me an ample opportunity to get a look at Kim Min-woo, Han Kook-young, Kang Sang-woo and Yang Hyun-mo for the visitors as well. Ulsan again take all three points, crushing Suwon 4-1 and leaving me in a state of shock as to why I haven't seen this side play more often. There is yet another goal from Jeong Jae-young, but there is also admirable performance from former national teamer Lee Jong-ho, also known as locally as "Gwangyang Rooney". My eyes are also drawn to former Incheon starlet Kim Jin-ya, purely because of his pace and dribbling ability along the right wing. At 19 years old, it would be a bold move to consider him, but perhaps a risk worth taking.

The match proves not to be all smiles though as my back up left back, Suwon's Kang Sang-woo, is injured and ruled out for two months, missing the World Cup. He is absolutely gutted when I call him, but I reassuringly tell him he will be in my plans when he returns. As a fringe player though, the reality is that he probably won't.

After taking in multiple matchs across the league and in the Champions League, a press conference is convened at the KFA headquarters in Paju for me to announce my 23 man World Cup squad. The list is as follows:

World Cup Squad
GKCho Hyun-wooJeonbuk Hyundai
GKKang Hyun-mooFC Seoul
GKYang Hyun-moSuwon Bluewings
DFKoo Ja-ryongSuwon Bluewings
DFShin Hyung-minFC Seoul
DFKim Min-jaeSangju Sangmu
DFLee YongJeonbuk Hyundai
DFKim Jin-suJeonbuk Hyundai
DFChoi Chul-soonJeonbuk Hyundai
DFHong ChulSangju Sangmu
MFKim Min-wooSuwon Bluewings
MFKim Han-gilFC Seoul
MFSong Jin-hyungFC Seoul
MFHan Kook-youngSuwon Bluewings
MFKim Jin-yaUlsan Hyundai
MFLee Myung-jooFC Seoul
MFYoon Bit-garamJeju United
MFLee Seung-giJeonbuk Hyundai
MFLee Jae-sungJeonbuk Hyundai
MFJeong Jae-yongUlsan Hyundai
FWLee Jong-hoUlsan Hyundai
FWKim Shin-wookJeonbuk Hyundai
FWShim Dong-woonFC Seoul

The are audible gasps as some names are read out, namely for former Jeonbuk captain, now FC Seoul centre back Shin Hyung-min, as well as for Ulsan youngster Kim Jin-ya. The former has been playing well for the champions though, and has visibly improved their defence since moving. He is also familiar with the other three defenders in my starting backline; Lee Yong, Kim Jin-su and Kim Min-jae, after their time spent together at Jeonbuk. Kim Jin-ya though is a pure wildcard, and will be used as an option from the bench if pace is required.

Kim Seung-dae is also dropped after only scoring one goal for Pohang this season, replaced by Lee Jong-ho whose goalscoring record is not great, but his assists and involvement in build up at Ulsan play offer a contrasting option to the brute force of The Wookie.

The first friendly against Holland has been scheduled days after an AFC Champions League match, so naturally all my players are absolutely shattered, particularly those plying their trade at Jeonbuk and FC Seoul. Despite it's importance, I have to opt for a rotated squad. I keep the same shape though, so as not to change too much at once.

Having given Kim Jin-ya a starting berth in a bid to give him quite the opening test of his abilities on the national stage, he pulls up after fourteen minutes after having been hacked down by Memphis Depay, meaning he has to be replace by an exhausted Song Jin-hyung on the right wing.

Shortly after, Choi Chul-soon is caught napping when Cho Hyun-woo's save rebounds out to an awaiting Virgil Van Dijk. The Southampton defender makes no mistake from close range, leaving us a goal down. Despite this setback though, we again look good, especially for a heavily rotated side with new faces playing in an attacking formation. Chance conversion does seem to be a concern still, with Shim Dong-woon struggling wtih the chances presented to him. The full time whistle is blown and we leave Seoul World Cup Stadium with a respectable 1-0 defeat. Notably Kim Min-jae played very well and looked assured at centre back.

Next up is Wales, and having Welsh heritage means that every journalist seems keen to point it out to me in the press conference. Still, I suppose it beats being asked about why I keep excluding Son Heung-min from my squad. I decide to stick to the same formation given Wales' lower world ranking but return to a starting eleven more resembling my first team. After all, we need at least one victory to try and keep morale up.

The Suwon World Cup Stadium certainly seems more packed than it was at Sangam. Perhaps the prospect of actually seeing a victory has encourage people to pop down after work. 

If so, then they certainly made the right choice! Not long into the match and Wookie volleys home an exquisite cross from Kim Min-woo to give us the lead. Then, before the celebrations have had time to die down, Lee Jae-sung picks up a loose ball on the edge of the area, turns, and sends a rocket beyond the reach of the Welsh 'keeper. The fans are ecstatic!

Lee Seung-gi makes it three shortly before the half time whistle, converting a chance nodded down for him by his Jeonbuk teammate Kim Shin-wook. With everything going swimmingly, I haul off my best players to keep them well rested for the Italy friendly.

The second half is subsequently less enjoyable, but we hold our nevre after conceding two sloppy goals from Woodburn and Allen to finish the fixture 3-2. It is still to be applauded regardless of the late comeback, and at least we can say we have finally won a friendly under my tenure.

With the victory against Wales, their is much more interest in our match against fourth in the world Italy. That, and there seems to be multiple reruns of Korea's famous World Cup quarter final victory against the Azzurri across every sports channel prior to this match, a game that one set of supporters still believe underhand tactics were afoot. The hero from that game, Ahn Jung-hwan, now a Korean reality star in a travel TV show, recalls that famous match, and the toll he had to pay when he returned to his club Perugia in Italy's Serie A. The coverage is an excercise in stirring up national pride, something that may be unwise given this generation's hero might end up being the Wookie, but it works and Sangam is rocking come kick-off. Though highly unlikely, victory here would get the nation behind me.

I decide I will use this as an opportunity to test my defensive 4-1-4-1 tactics, last seen in our 0-0 draw against Iran over a year ago, with the hope to catch them on the counter and convert the few chances we may create.

Again, the squad is slightly rotated given the fitness issues, meaning I have to revert to using Lee Jong-ho as a winger. We hold on to the ball mostly for the opening exchanges, keeping passes short and minimising risks. We win a corner shortly before the half hour mark, having not had a single shooting opportunity in the game. Yoon Bit-garam fools the defence by plaing it outside of the penalty box to Jeon Jae-yong, who passes it to Shim Dong-woon on the edge of the area. The striker hits the ball first time and curls it spectacurlarly into far corner, stunning not only the visitors, but the whole stadium No one is quite sure what they have witness, but a Korea squad built up of K League players are leading against Italy.

The rest of the match becomes an exercise in hacking down opponents and ensuring they do not find a way through. The Azzurri create chance after chance but continue to come up short. An equaliser is bundled in by Zaza in the fiftieth minute, but it is all they can muster, and we head to Russia on the back of a very credible draw against one of the word's best.

The three friendly matches have done their job and we have the backing of a nation as we board that plane without the likes of Son Heung-min and Ki Seung-yueng, both of whom should start considering moves to likes of AFC Champions League sides such as FC Seoul, Jeonbuk, Suwon or Daejeon Citizen (did I not mention that happened?) in the near future. The odds are against us (33-1 for us to win it outright apparently), but who knows what could happen when The Wookie is involved!

Before we left for Russia though, there was time for some last minute coaching staff appointments. K League United editors Ryan Walters and Paul Neat were appointed as additional assistant coaches for the finals, advising me with their K League knowledge as we tackle the group stages and possibly beyond!
With their appointments also comes the news that each of our World Cup Final matches will be streamed live from our bunker-shaped dugout on the K League United YouTube channel, with the first game against Croatia being shown on Thursday 8th February 2018 at 7:20pm KST.

You can subscribe to the channel here.

Catch you tomorrow, but for now, I'll leave you with this.

All together now; "Ohh, pilsung Korea!"

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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