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Preview: South Korea vs Bahrain

South Korea topped their group with a 2-0 win against China, making it three wins and no goals conceded. Next up is the knock-out stages where there is no room for error. Bahrain, South Korea’s round-of-sixteen opponents, reached the knockout stages thanks to a last minute penalty against India. South Korea may have thrashed Bahrain 6-0 in the Asian Games last summer, but this match will be a lot tighter than that. Korean National Team Correspondent Steve Price with the preview:

Last Time Out

South Korea finished off the group with a strong performance against China. Many pundits said it was a much stronger attacking performance than in Korea’s previous two games. While that is true, it has to be noted that  China didn’t sit back and park the bus as much as the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan, so it was easier for Korea to create such chances. 

Son Heung-min played almost the whole game and his touch of class was easy to see. According to Opta stats, Son Heung-min has created the most chances of any Korean player in the Asian Cup, despite only playing one game. A foul on Son earned Korea the penalty that Hwang Ui-jo scored to give South Korea the lead, and Son’s delivery allowed Kim Min-jae to head home a corner to put the game beyond doubt.

Like in their previous two encounters, South Korea had enough chances to put the game to bed. In fact, South Korea have had 52 shots on goal and 20 shots on target in the Asian Cup, more than any other team in the tournament bar Australia who have also hit the target 20 times. South Korea also have the most completed passes of any team in the tournament (1,936), with Jung Woo-young leading the individual passing stats with 301 passes. Combined with their three clean sheets, Korea are looking pretty strong so far, and just need to be a bit more clinical with their final passes and shooting. 

Bahrain, perhaps surprisingly, have had the joint second most shots in the tournament, although they’ve worked the goalkeeper only 14 times and scored just once from open play. They drew their first game against the United Arab Emirates 1-1 after conceding a late goal, and then lost against Thailand, meaning they needed a win in their final match to have a chance of progressing. Bahrain dominated their match against India, but it took a last minute penalty to win the game and send them to the last sixteen of the Asian Cup.

Previous Meetings

Kim Hak-beom’s Asian Games side might have thrashed Bahrain 6-0 in Indonesia last summer, but the Bahrain team at the Asian Cup only contains a few players from that team. There hasn’t been any other encounter recent enough to draw meaningful comparisons from, although South Korea will be hoping that the result goes differently from last time they met in the Asian Cup. That was back in 2007 in Jakarta, when Bahrain fought back to win 2-1 after conceding an early goal. It didn’t do them any good as they still finished bottom of the group while South Korea reached the semi-finals where they crashed out on penalties to eventual winners Iraq.

Team News

  • Lee Chung-yong has reportedly returned to Korea due to personal reasons although he is expected to get back to the UAE in time for the Bahrain match.
  • Ki Sung-yeung has recovered from his hamstring injury and is back in training.
  • Lee Jae-sung is still injured and will likely miss the Bahrain game.
  • Lee Yong returns after his one-match suspension for picking up two yellow cards.

The Opposition

Bahrain last reached the knockout stages in 2004 where they actually reached the semi-finals and were minutes away from beating Japan and reaching the final. Japan scored a last minute goal to level that game 3-3, before winning in extra-time. Bahrain also game within a goal of the World Cup in 2010, losing 1-0 on aggregate to New Zealand in the intercontinental playoff match.

What happened to Bahrain football after that? The Arab Spring. Several internationals from that playoff marched against the Bahrain government in 2011, and were arrested and allegedly tortured. The current case of Hakeem Al-Araibi and his possible extradition to Bahrain shows that football and the politics of the Arab Spring are still deeply intertwined.

Since 2011, Bahrain have failed to hit their previous heights, but new boss Miroslav Soukup, who has previously found success coaching the youth sides of his native Czech Republic, seems to have turned around their fortunes, and picked up some decent friendly results heading into this tournament. 

Bahrain have used just 15 players so far this tournament, the fewest of any side that reached the knockout stages of the Asian Cup. In terms of players to watch, Asian football expert Martin Lowe recommends striker Abdulla Yusef Helal, who plays for Czech side Bohemians, whereas Middle East football site Ahdaaf told me to look out for Mohamed Al-Romaihi, who scored Bahrain’s only goal from open play so far at the Asian Cup.

Both Martin Lowe and Ahdeef also told me to keep my eye on defender Hamad Al-Shamsan. The young defender was one of the few players in this side to play at the Asian Games last summer, and could be a key player for Bahrain in years to come. 

For more on the Bahrain side, check out Martin Lowe’s preview here.

South Korea play Bahrain on Tuesday 22nd January at 10 p.m. Korean time.

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