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Korea Hoping for a Turn of Fortune in Russia

With the World Cup in Russia just around the corner, South Korea go into the tournament knowing that they face a very difficult test in Group F as they square off against Sweden, Mexico and Germany.  Although there is optimism in the side that progression to the knockout stage is possible, it is much more measured in comparison to four years ago in Brazil, where getting through the group seemed to be almost assured, but was met with disappointment after crashing out of the tournament against Algeria.  Will things be different this time around?  K League United's Branko Belan explores what lies ahead for the Reds as they knock on Russia's door.

(Image courtesy of www.kfa.or.kr)

A Debacle Revisited

Four years ago in Brazil, it seemed, at least on paper, that in a group with Russia, Belgium and Algeria, advancing to the knockout stages was a fair possibility.  After a draw against Russia in their opening match, they would go on to lose their next two, and returned home in embarrassment.

Lee Keun-ho put Korea ahead after 68 minutes against this year's hosts, only for Aleksandr Kerzhakov to equalize six minutes later to share the spoils in the end.

Despite their best efforts against Belgium, with the addition of having a man advantage after Steven Defour was sent off in the 44th minute after a straight red for a dangerous challenge on Kim Shin-wook, it was the Belgians who would take all three points when Jan Vertonghen pounced on a rebound in the 77th minute for the only goal of the match.

The Algeria encounter presented the last opportunity for Korea to salvage something from the tournament, but the African side were already three up by the break and there was no way for Korea to recover in what finished a 4-2 loss.

Run-up to Russia

Fast forward to 2018.  It started off fairly well for Korea as they managed two wins and a draw in their winter training camp, but back to back losses in March friendlies against Northern Ireland and Poland, respectively cast some doubt on what could be a notable weakness for the national side come their opening match against Sweden on June 18th - how their back line will respond under pressure.

As a comparison, recent friendlies against Honduras and Bosnia-Herzegovina provided two completely different pictures of the current squad.  Against the Central American side, they struggled in the first forty-five minutes before coming alive to score twice in the second half, keeping a clean sheet for Cho Hyun-woo in the process.

Against Bosnia, it was a completely different story, however, as coach Shin Tae-yong used the match to experiment with a three man back line, which completely backfired, as Edin Visca scored a hat-trick for the visitors in a 3-1 win.

Korea's defenders were under constant pressure the whole way, and Oh Ban-suk was particularly exposed on several occasions, leaving many to wonder why he was included on the final 23 man roster, having just earned his first call-up to the senior team.  His performances for his club side Jeju United this season may have been enough to warrant consideration, but if not for a slew of injuries, he wouldn't have even been in the conversation for the World Cup at all.

Korea looked very uninspiring in a goalless draw against Bolivia.  They lacked a first touch on the ball, and aside from a few solid chances from Kim Shin-wook in the first forty-five, lacked creativity in front of goal and the urgency to go for a winner in the second half.

They didn't field what looked like their best eleven, which leaves a lot up in the air as to what the strategy is for this team moving forward.  With only one friendly remaining against Senegal, time is thin to cement a starting unit when they open against Sweden in just over a week's time.

One positive from the match is that Korea reverted to a back four once again, which is how they should man their defensive third.  They simply lack the quality and depth to employ wingers on the flanks who can track back in support as would be the case with only three at the back.  They are too thin to defend against the sort of counter-attack which their opponents in Russia are capable of.

If not Son, then who?

There is, however, another concern for the team to address - that of the role of Son Heung-min, and particularly the fact that he will be the marked man for Korea at these finals.  It's no secret that a lot will be expected of him, which means that he will most likely have very little space to maneuver in the offensive third.

This begs the question of who will step up in a support role.  All eyes could point in the direction of Lee Jae-sung, last year's K League MVP, who is rumored to be moving to Europe this summer, although most reports to this point are pure speculation.

He has been the lynch pin of the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors midfield, serving as the supply line for the immense offensive talent in front of him, as he has been fortunate this season to line up with the likes of Adriano, Ricardo Lopes, and Kim Shin-wook.  Of all players in the final squad, it is in fact he who could feature most prominently for Korea this time around.

The Adversaries

Korea will hope to begin writing a new World Cup dream when they open the tournament against Sweden.  It could likely be their easiest test in the group, and if they are to have hope of moving out of the group, it would be amicable to get off to a positive start.  

Sweden, however, qualified through the European play-offs, following a stiff challenge from four time champions Italy.  They did not concede a single goal in their final five qualifiers, including the playoffs, so it will be a challenge to break them down defensively, especially if Son is kept in check up top.

Mexico have always been known as a tough counter-attacking team, and this time around will be no different.  They finished five points clear in CONCACAF qualifying, highlighted by a 1-0 home win against Panama, which sealed their fifteenth consecutive trip to the finals.  Leading the line will be Javier Hernandez, who will be making his third consecutive finals appearance, having scored three times in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, combined.

Germany will present the most daunting task for Korea as the two will go head to head in the final encounter in the group, when everything could still potentially be on the line.  

The German squad this year is stacked from top to bottom, so much so that there was no space in the final squad for young star, Leroy Sane of Manchester City.  The defending champions breezed through qualifying with a perfect record, averaging over four goals per match, while conceding four times in ten matches.  They are among the favorites to lift the trophy once again this year.

Shin Tae-yong is not Guus Hiddink

Though he has only been in charge a short time, Shin's tactics have been called into question on more than one occasion.  Many would argue that Korea have been largely unconvincing throughout qualifying, and the positive start to the year was overshadowed by the fact that the level of their competition was not exactly top of the crop, when looking back on their winter camp.

The performance against Bolivia is another example of his failure to recognize the strengths of his own players, and that doesn't bode well for what is to come in the matches ahead.  He lacks the confidence to lead, and that only reflects poorly on the squad as a whole.

Back in 2002, when Guus Hiddink came along to take over the squad, Korea went on to become the surprise of the tournament, securing its best ever result, finishing fourth.

What was so special about that team?  

First of all, with the likes of Lee Woon-jae in goal, a defence which included Hong Myung-bo, Lee Young-pyo and Park Ji-sung in midfield, and Ahn Jung-hwan and Seol Ki-hyeon up front, the team had considerable talent.  They were also adept enough to be effective in a formation with three at the back.

It is not to say that the current crop is not talented, but Korea's group from 2002 was a unit which proved it was capable of putting it all together.  This current squad cannot make the same claim, yet.

What that 2002 squad also had, something which it has lacked since, is a football mastermind.  Not only was Hiddink able to utilize the players he had in his squad in the best way possible, he had a charisma about him which motivated his players to produce results on the pitch.

Shin just doesn't have that kind of pedigree, and the question which hangs in the balance is whether he will be able to find the right chemistry in the time remaining for this team to be competitive, and with a fighting chance to notch a place in the last sixteen.

Still cause for optimism

Despite a difficult draw, there is still optimism in the Korean camp.  In a recent feature for FIFA.com, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors Kim Shin-wook recalled how the team back in 2014 felt they were in an easy group, but that Belgium and Algeria ended up being stronger than they expected, and it ended up being a rude awakening.

The target man, who towers over opponents at 196 centimeters, has twenty goals in total to his name since joining the current Korean champions in 2016, including three this season.  He has scored seven times at the senior level for his country, and hopes to add to that total in Russia.

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