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EAFF E-1 Preview: South Korea vs Hong Kong

EAFF E-1 Championships Preview: South Korea vs Hong Kong
Busan plays host to 2019's EAFF E-1 competition with both men's and women's tournaments across the city. A league table format featuring Hong Kong, Japan and China, Paulo Bento's South Korea side will first face a Hong Kong side who qualified through the second preliminary round by virtue of hammering Mongolia 5-1 to top the group on goals scored. We spoke to Offside Hong Kong's Christie Leung to find out more about the tournament underdogs.  
(Photo credit: Hani.co.kr)

Peter Hampshire Asks, Christie Leung Answers

Peter Hampshire: Plenty of the Hong Kong squad will be unknown to the majority of Korean fans. Were there any surprises in the squad being brought over? Who should we all look out for?

Christie Leung: Since taking over earlier this year, our new head coach Mixu Paatelainen has been injecting new blood into the team, so the Korean fans might be seeing more local young boys' faces rather than naturalised played than they've expected. The key surprise would be the absence of our experienced towering centre back Andy Russell of Hebei China Fortune. The reason for his exclusion is unknown yet, but we would certainly miss his presence in our defence. Our main player would be Tan Chun-lok, a 23-years-old box-to-box midfielder playing for Guangzhou R&F in China. Tan has been crucial in Paatelainen's tactics with three defensive midfielders and often is the one given the permission to drive forward. Our star player and goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai will certainly have some busy evenings ahead of him and hopefully his name will be remembered by the Korean fans after denying some goals.

(Photo credit: Zinc Yeung @offsidehk)

PH: Hong Kong have enjoyed themselves in EAFF tournaments of late, losing just once in their last eight fixtures. Hosting in 2016, then beating hosts Taiwan last year, how much weight does this tournament carry on the Hong Kong football calendar? 

CL: The EAFF preliminary tournaments have always been something we look forward to and are seen as one of the few tournaments we get to host regularly. However, the track record might not mean much as we've always been meeting Taiwan, Guam and North Korea in the tournament and it is only up against the latter than we should not expect a straightforward win. It's been 10 years since we qualified for the final round and knowing our role as the underdogs well, everyone cherishes the chance of playing up against the top teams in Asia, even though only your B teams are sent.

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PH: How do you expect the team to set up formation and tactics wise against a much stronger Korean team on paper? Were any lessons learnt from September's defeat to Iran in World Cup qualifying?

CL: Hong Kong has been drawn in a very tough group along with Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Cambodia for the WCQ's, so Paatelainen has been consistent with fielding a 4-5-1 formation with three defensive midfielders in the middle. The variance of our tactics would lie on whether we would put on attacking or defensive players on the wings. Our defensive unit has gelled well with two clean sheets at home against Bahrain and Cambodia, with just 2-0 defeats at home against Iran and Iraq. Korea might not find it easy to break down our defence but we have yet to find our attacking solution.

PH: Finally, a score prediction for Wednesday's match?

CL: South Korea 3-0 Hong Kong

Christie Leung Asks, Peter Hampshire Answers

Christie Leung: Korea doesn't have the best form lately and has not scored in their last three games, what has been the main cause for that? How would they adjust to challenge for their third consecutive EAFF title this time on home soil?

Peter Hampshire: While Paulo Bento's side may appear to have slowed down of late on paper, especially in front of goal, their performances have not been as shaky as results suggest. October's WCQ 0-0 draw in Pyeongyang was seen as a satisfactory point under testing circumstances while a second consecutive stalemate in Lebanon saw an admittedly tepid performance. Korea faced a strong Brazil side last time out in a glorified friendly, but were not dominated to the extent that a 3-0 defeat suggests. Profligacy in front of goal has perhaps stemmed from Bento's adoption of less gung-ho tactics to ensure a good standing in qualifying ahead of more favourable fixtures next year. Bento will revert to his attacking type for this tournament and the Taeguk Warriors have had no such problems on home soil recently, ruthlessly netting eight against Sri Lanka to follow two wins and a draw against Bolivia, Colombia and Iran in 2019.

CL: Under a tight tournament schedule of three matches in eight days, would Korea be likely to field a weaker team against Hong Kong to keep fresh legs for the later games? Who would likely to be making the biggest impact?

PH: With the KLeague season finishing quite recently players such as Kim Moon-hwan, pictured above having only won promotion on Sunday, may be rested. A tasty end of season battle royale saw Jeonbuk Hyundai steal the title from under the noses of Ulsan Hyundai on the final day and key figures from both sides involved in such an energy-sapping finale such as Moon Seon-min and Kim Bo-kyung may be afforded more rest time. Having said that, Bento has shown a tendency in previous games to keep influential players on the pitch for as long as possible, as we saw with Son Heung-min playing a full 90 minutes against Brazil. Three games inside a week surely lends itself to rotation of some form, with forwards Na Sang-ho and Kim Seung-dae chomping at the bit to improve their goal tallies after frustrating domestic seasons personally. Han Seung-gyu is another who has seen game time limited this term while Lee Yeong-jae and Kim In-sung may not be household names but will be looking to continue their fine KLeague form at Gangwon and Ulsan respectively.

(Photo credit: Yonhap News)

CL: Most of the regulars who are plying their trade at Europe will not be joining the tournament, how is the EAFF conceived among the Korean fans? How much fan support would we expect to see in the stadium, especially for non-Korea games?

PH: Apart from six players joining the squad from the MLS, China and Japan, the Korean squad is heavily KLeague dependent. Host city Busan boast two players from their triumphant play-off winning squad in Lee Jeong-hyeop and Kim Moon-hwan and hopefully that will see attendance figures boosted for a tournament with tickets still available to purchase. Games not featuring Korea do have plentiful availability but tournament organisers have sensibly placed those matches in the smaller Gudeok Stadium in the centre of the city, with the exception of the double-header final day at the Asiad. Much like in Hong Kong, national team games are well-attended in comparison to the domestic league and it will be interesting to note the level of interest without those big European-based names. To be truthful I haven't heard much boasting of past EAFF successes nor anticipation of the tournament this year but I do live on the other side of the country to Busan, who memorably turned out in their numbers for a friendly against Australia in June. While the squad is obviously missing some big hitters such as Son and Hwang Hee-chan, a well-balanced squad after a truly entertaining domestic season may see an inflated attendance.

CL: How do you think this one will finish?

PH: South Korea 4-0 Hong Kong

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