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AFC U-23 Championship Preview: South Korea vs Iran

Kim Hak-beom's young guns sit top of Group C following Lee Dong-jun's last-gasp winner to defeat China on Thursday. They now face an Iranian side who came back from a 1-0 deficit to rescue a point against Uzbekistan. Victory would see them progress to the knockout stages with a game to spare.
(Photo via AFC)

Last Time Out

South Korea U-23 1-0 China U-23

Korea put out a strong starting eleven bursting to the seems with players who have enjoyed stellar seasons in the KLeague such as Lee Dong-gyeong and Kim Dae-won of Ulsan Hyundai and Daegu FC respectively. Kim Jin-ya started at left back having just signed for FC Seoul with Oh Se-hun leading the line up top ahead of Cho Kyu-sung, currently linked with Jeonbuk Hyundai.

While the Taeguk Warriors dominated possession the match was not as comfortable as most expected with Zhang Yuning curling an effort just wide early on. Kim Dae-won should have done much better as he was afforded plenty of space in the box but Chen Wei made an all too comfortable save. Into the second half substitute Kim Jin-gyu stretched to head just over at the back post as China continued to test Song Beom-kun on the break. With seconds remaining, Kim Jin-gyu's delicate chip over the top was taken down perfectly into his stride by Busan IPark's hot prospect Lee Dong-jun, showing great composure to tuck home with his left foot.

[READ: Recap of Korea's first win of the tournament]

Iran U-23 1-1 Uzbekistan U-23

Following Azizjon Ganiev's potshot from range for Uzbekistan which failed to trouble Habib Far Abbasi, Iran's Ali Shojaei was guilty of perhaps the miss of the tournament blazing over from just eight yards out with the goal gaping. Hamid Estili's Iran side then gifted the White Wolves the lead through Mojtaba Najjarian's unnecessary lunge in the box on Bobur Abdukhalikov. Islomjon Kobilov tucked home from 12 yards just before the break before Estili hauled Shojaei off at half time.

Najjarian looked to take the game by the scruff of the neck, driving forward through the lines to force Abbasi into a fine save down to his right. Moments later and calamitous defending allowed Iran a lifeline as Reza Dehghani profited from Uzbekistan twice failing to clear their lines inside their own box. Mohammad Mohebi spurned a gilt-edged chance to seal the three points for Iran, firing over in space with just the keeper to beat.

Previous Meetings

The two sides have only met once prior to Sunday at this level of men's football in 2018's Asian Games, which Korea went on to win by beating Japan in the final. Anticipated to be their toughest fixture of the tournament, Kim Hak-beom led his side to a relatively comfortable victory through goals from Hwang Ui-jo and Lee Seung-woo either side of the break. Neither of those are in the current squad with Hwang playing as an over-age member and Lee one of those European-based players still at their clubs. Their round of 16 defeat of Iran certainly gave Korea confidence to go on and claim the gold medal that gained the squad not only silverware but also military exemption.

[LISTEN: KLeague Room 101]

The Adversary

Hoping to reach an Olympic Games for the first time since 1976, Iran boss Hamid Estili feels they have a great opportunity to do so due to their preparation. Suggesting that they are in a much better position than ahead of previous tournaments because of the way the fixture calendar has fallen, Iran's management are in no doubts of the difficulty of Group C, which boasts three teams that could realistically make it all the way to the final. Interestingly, Estili opted for 18-year-old Allahyar Sayyadmanesh to lead the line despite having more experienced forwards in his ranks. Based in Turkey, the starlet moved from Pro League giants Esteghal to Fenerbache in 2019.

(Photo via AFC)

Former Persepolis boss Estili surprisingly started the Uzbekistan with a 4-4-1-1 formation, perhaps acknowledging the strength of their opponents. Ultimately that approach led them to having just 36% possession, which is an unusual feeling for such a dominant nation on the Asian circuit. Making regular appearances domestically for the first time this season, goal scorer on Thursday Dehghani was the pick of the bunch for Team Melli, one of few with significant minutes under his belt this season. Estili showed that he was not afraid to shuffle the pack making a change at the break against Uzbekistan. Stressing that the substitution was planned ahead of the game, with Mehdi Ghaedi introduced as one of Iran's star players.

What To Watch

Having enjoyed terrific success with Korea's Under 20's last summer, Oh Se-hun led the line once more on the international stage against China. He and Gwangju's Eom Won-sang were arguably the two standout players from Poland's youth World Cup and have both forced their way into Kim's squad. The manager has a direct choice between two similar strikers for the number nine shirt with Anyang's Cho Kyu-sung having enjoyed a breakthrough season in the KLeague 2 netting 14 goals in 2019. Appearing to be on the verge of a move to the top division, Cho will be hoping that rotation is on the mind of the boss. Both forwards are adept at holding the ball up and bringing wingers into play and while Cho has enjoyed the better season domestically, Oh showing that he can perform on the big stage last summer perhaps put him ahead of Cho in the pecking order. Kim Hak-beom's choice of striker on Sunday will go a long way to show how he will approach his team selection heading into latter stages of the tournament should Korea get there, whether rotation will be a feature or he will prefer to stick with a winning side.

[READ: United Korean team qualify for CONIFA World Football Cup]

(Photo via AFC)


Substitutes proved their worth in the victory against China with two combining for the dramatic winner. Kim Hak-beom will play what he sees as his strongest side hoping to treat the final game against Uzbekistan as an opportunity to rest certain players. Should Iran lose this, they will be in danger of a shock group stage elimination, so we could be in for one of the games of the tournament even at this early stage. I expect a cagey affair in the first half with both sides evenly matched on paper and pressing for the win late on.

South Korea U-23 1-1 Iran U-23

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