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Writers' Chat: Northern Ireland vs South Korea

Northern Ireland vs South Korea previewAfter decent results in Shin Tae-yong's special winter training camp, Korea's World Cup preparations continue with matches against Northern Ireland and Poland during the March international break. To find out more about the Northern Ireland team that will face Korea at 11 p.m. on Saturday 24th March (Korean Time), Steve Price spoke to Northern Ireland native and K-League United statto Ross Davis about the match.

Questions on the Northern Ireland National Team

Steve Price: Northern Ireland narrowly missed out on the World Cup. Will they use these friendlies to bring in fresh blood?

Ross Davis: I would say it's unlikely as the threadbare nature of our squad means the blooding took place at the tail-end of our World Cup qualifying campaign. The likes of Jordan Jones, who plays for Kilmarnock F.C. in the Scottish Premier League, and Millwall F.C.’s George Saville made their debuts against Switzerland in the crucial play-off and the penultimate qualifier against Germany, respectively. I would expect both to feature at some point in this match, with Saville being more likely to start than Jones. Saville, a central midfielder, made the headlines this month for scoring inside the first minute in two games straight. Both, it must be said, weren’t actually born in Northern Ireland, but instead qualify to play via their lineage, which is not uncommon for Northern Ireland as a good percentage of the first team is the same.

Steve: Northern Ireland only conceded six goals in qualifying (and five of those were to Germany). How can Korea find a way through the Northern Ireland defense?

Ross: Northern Ireland’s defensive solidarity was, and has been, the foundation of our rise up the FIFA rankings. Manager Michael O’Neil has an experienced back line that’s well organised and capable of switching between a back three and a back four seamlessly. This, on top of a strong team shape and work ethic that defends from the front, means there won’t be a lot of space for Korea in the final third of the pitch. I expect a tight game and wouldn’t be surprised if Northern Ireland got away with a clean sheet as I don’t see Korea having the guile or creativity to break down that experienced backline of Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley. Having said that, a moment of magic from Son Heung-min, who has a short trip over from London, wouldn’t be all that surprising given his current form.

Steve: Who are Northern Ireland's standout players?

Ross: Undoubtedly Northern Ireland’s and Southampton’s captain Steven Davis is our standout player. Worryingly, Davis comes into this fixture on the injury table and hasn’t played since a 12-minute cameo at the beginning of February. The midfield lynchpin is the creative spark in a team that doesn’t have much else in the way of creativity and would be sorely missed if he doesn’t recover in time. I would say the next standout player would be the player who gets on the end of the well-drilled set pieces that are a major source of the team’s goals.

Steve: Can we expect any classic chants like 'Will Grigg's on Fire'?

Ross: Unfortunately not, that chant is very much 2014, and added to fact that Grigg isn’t in the squad and never really has featured under Michael O’Neil. There will be lesser-known classics about a 7-foot Kyle Lafferty and the classic Kolo and Yaya Toure rendition for Northern Irish brothers Jonny and Corry Evans, which sometimes features Corry’s wife Lisa.

Questions on the Korean National Team

Ross Davis:  Our solid platform over the last few campaigns has been built on the stability of our defense with 3 of the mainstays playing their club football together at West Brom. I was surprised to hear Shin Tae-Yong had to defend himself for picking five Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors players in defense – do you think this could have a similar positive impact on the Korean backline?

Steve Price: Yeah, that looks to be the plan. If you look at Iceland's recent success, a lot of that comes from playing essentially the same eleven players in every international game for several years, allowing the players to know each other inside-out. It gives Iceland the ability to punch above its weight. For example England's players, who are often picked on form, are better players, but a worse team, than if the same eleven were chosen week in week out. For Korea, these Jeonbuk defenders know each other very well from having a huge number of games together, which will allow them to play better as a unit than if Shin Tae-yong had picked other players. I also think Shin saw the problems that Stielike had when trying to use defenders who were out of favour with their club sides in China and Germany and wanted to avoid that. All players make mistakes, but players who play regularly together should make fewer mistakes, even if they aren't necessarily Korea's five best defenders on paper. Out of the five, Kim Min-jae and Kim Jin-su would be the best out of the Jeonbuk defense, but the other players aren't bad either, and lots of the non-Jeonbuk defenders have had nightmare performances in the national team shirt recently. 

Ross: Recent performances seem to taken a turn for the better with Korea on a run of eight games without defeat – What’s been key to the improvement, even when some of the more high-profile players have been unavailable?

Steve: Korea's recent results have to be looked at in the context of the opposition. Even the Japan side in the EAFF East Asian Cup wasn't a full-strength Japanese side. In the five matches that Korea have had against strong (World Cup level) opponents under Shin Tae-yong, Korea have one win (against Colombia), two draws (Iran and Serbia), and two losses (Russia and Morocco), so Korea still have a long way to go. But Shin Tae-yong does seem to be improving as an international manager and learning from his mistakes. Korea's performances have improved since those two defeats to Russia and Morocco, so things do seem to be heading in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go. These next two games will show us how far they've improved. The big question for this match is whether Shin Tae-yong can do what he struggled to do against Iran and find a way to break down a well organised defense. If we see a similar lack of creativity from Korea as we did against Iran then that would be a real worry.

Ross: Windsor Park, or the National Stadium as it’s now officially known, is a tight pitch with a boisterous crowd right on top of the players and it’s a guarantee that the goalkeeper will be given stick every goal kick – do you expect this could affect the players’ performance?

Steve: It could affect the players, but it's just what they need. They struggled away from home in qualifying, particularly against China where the crowd was very 'boisterous', and a lot of their recent 'away' friendlies have been in empty neutral stadiums, so I think the experience of a hostile crowd will be good preparation for Korea.

Ross: Do  you expect the Korean line-up to be pretty much the same as the one that lines up on the 18th of June against Sweden?

Steve: Yeah, this match looks like it was set up with Sweden in mind. Shin Tae-yong has already said that the squad for these two matches is similar to the one that will go to Russia, with just a couple of changes. Northern Ireland and Sweden are also similar in that they have strong, well-organised defenses, so this match will be ideal practice for the Sweden match.

Korea take on Northern Ireland at 11 p.m. Saturday 24th March (Korean Time)

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