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Writers' Chat: South Korea vs Kyrgyzstan

AFC Asian Cup 2019 Preview: South Korea vs Kyrgyzstan
Korea kicked off their 2019 Asian Cup campaign with a 1-0 win over the Philippines and look to make it two wins out of two to secure their place in the knockout round. Their opponents, Kyrgyzstan, are making their Asian Cup debut this year, and were a bit unlucky to lose 2-1 in their opening game against China where they looked threatening but were undone by mistakes at the back, and particularly by the goalkeeper. Korean national team columnist Steve Price talked to Asian football expert Martin Lowe about the upcoming match.

Previous Meetings

South Korea last met Kyrgyzstan in the final group match of the Asian Games last summer. After losing to Malaysia in their previous match, South Korea needed a good result against Kyrgyzstan to progress. The Central Asian side were a tough nut to crack, but eventually Son Heung-min broke the deadlock on 63 minutes. The game finished 1-0 and South Korea went on to win the competition. Although that match was technically an under-23 match, many of the players involved have been included in the two sides' Asian Cup squads.

South Korea Team News

Na Sang-ho had to pull out of the original squad through injury and was replaced last minute by Hellas Verona forward Lee Seung-woo. Lee was a surprise call-up to the 2018 World Cup squad but performed well on the big stage and was also a big part of South Korea's Asian Games squad, scoring four goals including Korea's opener in the final against Japan. He has one goal and one assist in ten Serie B appearances for Hellas Verona this season. 

Ki Sung-yeung picked up a hamstring injury against the Philippines and won't play against Kyrgyzstan. He is also expected to miss the match against China but may be fit for the first knockout match.

K League Coach: Korea 1-0 Philippines Analysis

Writers' Chat

To find out a bit more about South Korea's opponents, Steve Price talked to Asian football expert Martin Lowe. Martin has written previews for every team at the 2019 Asian Cup so please check out this link if you want to learn in detail about any team in the competition.

Steve Asks, Martin Answers

Steve Price: Kyrgyzstan were a bit unlucky to lose 2-1 to China. What did you make of Kyrgyzstan's Asian Cup opener?

Martin Lowe: After the tournament, I’m sure Kyrgyzstan will come away from their 2-1 defeat to China in good spirits. They dominated the first half, creating a number of clear cut chances, controlling possession and generally stretching China, who were noticeably shaken. However, key defensive mistakes, especially the goalkeeping howler which granted China their equaliser will leave a sick feeling in Kyrgyz stomachs; this was a chance missed.

Alexandr Krestinin is well known in the region for being a component tactical manager, yet too many changes (especially in defensive areas) led to the Chinese winner, which drained the team’s confidence. Against Korea, the game plan will be clearer; they’ll expect to relinquish possession more often and act as the clear underdog. The worry is that if they do concede early on, how will they adapt? They faced Japan in November, as a quite obvious like-for-like match-up for South Korea, and it didn’t go too well (losing 4-0). The experience of being out thought and played by such a superior side will have done them good and given the group stage allows for teams to progress on potentially three points as a lucky loser, focus will undoubtedly be on them achieving a victory against Philippines on the last day, with a draw against Korea being seen as an added bonus.

SP: Kyrgyzstan last played Korea in the Asian Games last summer. Are any members of that Asian Games squad in the Asian Cup team? Are there any players in particular we should look out for?

ML: Seven members of this Asian Cup squad were part of the side that faced Korea at the Asian Games. Apart from two of the three overage players in that tournament, the younger generation will only make up the fringes of the squad in the UAE however. The squad itself is heavily home based, primarily around domestic champions Dordoi, who are also coached by Krestinin. This nucleus gives Kyrgyzstan a strong spine, to be supplemented by a number of foreign based players; striker Vitalij Lux and right back/winger Viktor Maier play in Germany, while defender Valery Kichin plays in the Russian Premier League.

Kyrgyzstan’s biggest goal threat comes via Anton Zemlianukhin, a lively winger that’ll aim to cut in from the left and run at the central defenders. He proved potent on the attack during qualification, scoring 10 goals over both stages, yet has fallen off the radar slightly in the past 12 months after a transfer to Kazakhstan misfired, whilst failing to gain full fitness upon his return to the Kyrgyz Top Liga since the summer. He hadn’t featured in a Kyrgyz shirt since qualification, but looked adequately fit appearing off the bench against China so could be in line for a start against Korea. If however you’re looking out for a young gem, Ernist Batyrkanov is coming through at a heavy speed. The 20-year-old scored twice at the Asian Games, and will likely get more minutes under his belt coming off the bench in the Emirates.

SP: How are Kyrgyzstan likely to approach this game? Will it be 10 men behind the ball, or will they look to try and attack South Korea?

ML: Krestinin had demonstrated some good tactical play over the course of qualification, testing the likes of Australia and Jordan early on, so they have it in their locker to compete with the elite sides in Asia. They will initially set up in a 5-4-1 formation, with tucked-in full backs, relying upon the speed in transition of Israilov, Zemilanukhin and Zhyrgallebk Uulu in wide attacking areas to hit teams on the counter. While it’s unlikely to occur against South Korea, Kyrgyzstan can flex their approach if they get hold of the ball (as they did against China), pushing forward one of their back five into midfield, to emulate a more typical 4-2-3-1 formation which can pose a number of problems to the opposition.

The White Falcons usually start with an archetypal number 9 figure, in either Vitalij Lux or Mirlan Murzaev as their point of the attack. Both offer an out ball to play off but little in the way of pace, so expect Bekzhan Sagynbaev to be the greatest threat in transition. Fresh off the back of a potent campaign with Dordoi, the wide midfielder or central striker has become the poster boy of the national team on the run up to the Asian Cup, appearing in a number of the country’s pre-tournament advertising campaigns.

SP: Central Asia as a whole has seen a bit more footballing success over the past year or so with Tajikistan coming runners up in the U-16 championship, Uzbekistan winning the U-23 championship last January, and Turkmenistan’s Altyn Asyr FK reaching the final of the AFC Cup. Could this be the start of a renaissance of football in the region?

ML: The changes made to World Cup qualification have quickly tightened up the quality of football being played in Asia. The biggest change was the amount of guaranteed game time, for example Kyrgyzstan only played 5 competitive games in qualification for the previous World and Asian Cups, upon the last round this time they played 14. The take up of the game has been slow in the country, often trailing quite considerably behind it’s neighbours, in particular behind Central Asian heavyweights Uzbekistan. A notable recruitment drive in Europe, with players connected to their diaspora helped move the quality of the domestic game up a level, and with further exposure to continental competition, the results are starting to pick up further.

I think we’ll see greater success of these nations once we see more players given opportunities to make the grade outside of their national leagues. While Kyrgyzstan have benefited from a number of players playing in Europe, the likes of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have struggled to get players in stronger leagues. Exposure in World Cup qualification and in the AFC Cup can only help this development, while performances in the UAE will no doubt put a few players in the shop window.

Martin Asks, Steve Answers

Martin Lowe:   Paulo Bento has had a successful start to his stint as South Korea boss. How would you compare his approach, compared to that of Shin Tae-yong and Uli Stielike before him?

Steve Price: Few Koreans were fans of Stielike’s slow, cautious approach, and Shin Tae-yong seemed more worried about disrupting the opposition than playing to Korea’s strengths. He selected striker Kim Shin-wook for the World Cup partly to help Korea deal with Sweden's aerial threat.  Bento has Korea playing to their strengths and attacking quickly. He’s also seamlessly brought through the next generation of players, cleverly making the most of Korea’s successful Asian Games. The timing of that tournament really benefited him, and his first few selections were largely based on the World Cup and Asian Games squads (although he has broadened his net since). He has also gone down the route of choosing technical players over players with strong physical attributes. Stielike was criticized for being too stubborn in his team selections such as the use of Lee Jeong-hyup, whereas Shin Tae-yong seemed to choose some players based on their popularity rather than their suitability for the task in hand (Lee Dong-gook in the Iran match for example). Bento seems to have got the balance right so far, and his emphasis on youth has created the same positive feeling as Gareth Southgate managed with England.

On the pitch, Bento has got Korea going forward far more quickly than his predecessors. While being direct, it hasn't been 'hoof it to the targetman' but rather an attempt to catch opponents out of position. A good example would be in the match against Chile where Korea's defense invited Chile to press them, then tried to release the wingers with a quick ball bypassing the midfield. Korea are unbeaten under Bento so far, but rode their luck at times against Chile and Australia, and couldn't break down Panama so there is still room for improvement.

Of course, the positive atmosphere surrounding the national team has been helped by some good results, so the real test will come when things aren't going Korea's way.

ML: South Korea are tipped by many to progress far, and maybe even win the whole thing in January. What concerns do you have of this side competing at the latter end of the tournament?

SP: Every team in this tournament has one bad game in them, so there’s a big difference between being favorites and actually winning the tournament. South Korea's friendly match against Panama showed that there is still a lot of work to be done. Korea could’ve been out of sight in the first half, but two silly goals put Panama level, and after that, Korea seemed to run out of ideas. There’s a worry that something similar could happen later on in the tournament where opponents might put 10 men behind the ball. Korea's opener against the Philippines showed how difficult it is to break down an organized defense, and all it takes is one well-timed counterattack and Korea could find themselves going home early. Korea’s recent penalty-taking record is also a concern, with Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yeung struggling from 12 yards recently.

ML:  Son Heung-min’s impact on this team can’t be overstated. Given his absence from the side for the first two matchdays, who can you see in this squad that is capable of taking on his role?

SP: I think Son’s absence is a positive because it’ll force the team to find other ways to attack, which will reduce some of the burden from Son when he does come back. For this match, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rotated line-up to give everyone in the squad a chance to play, so it’s not really a case of who plays instead of Son. In the friendlies in Australia, Na Sang-ho filled in for that position, and in the match against Saudi Arabia, Hwang In-beom played where you might expect Son to play. Na Sang-ho has been ruled out of the Asian Cup with injury so his replacement Lee Seung-woo might get some game time against Kyrgyzstan. Hwang In Beom could also get his chance in the group stage matches in Son’s absence.

ML:   Bento has picked five players who are under 23 for this Asian Cup squad. Which of them can you see making a big impact on the tournament?

SP: The young players in this squad all played at the Asian Games in the summer, where the stakes were as high, if not higher, than at the Asian Cup, so they have all shown they can perform under the pressure of a tournament. Hwang Hee-chan and Kim Min-jae are both established internationals who will both have big roles to play in the Asian Cup, but Hwang In-beom may well be the breakout player of the tournament. Hwang is highly rated in Korea and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up moving to Europe this winter.

South Korea play Kyrgyzstan at 1 a.m. Saturday morning (Friday night) Korean Standard Time

The K League United Podcast

Ahead of Korea's Asian Cup campaign, The K League United Podcast saw site columnists Matthew Binns, Steve Price and Peter Hampshire sit down to preview the entire Korea squad plus the manager himself. They also assessed the side's strengths and weaknesses in addition to how they think the team will fare in the competition. You can listen in the player below, or subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Google Podcasts or Stitcher.

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