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AFC U23 Championship Final Preview: South Korea vs Saudi Arabia

Sunday night sees South Korea take on Saudi Arabia in the final of the AFC U23 Championship with both teams having sealed automatic qualification to the Tokyo Olympics this summer by virtue of their victories over Australia and Uzbekistan respectively.  Kim Hak-bum has proven himself to be a master tactician, keeping his charges fresh throughout the tournament while building depth in the group, and the results have followed.  Saudi Arabia meanwhile have also impressed in spurts but needed a bit of luck to get by defending champions Uzbekistan leaving it late, scoring just three minutes from time.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to what should be an intriguing match.
(Photo courtesy of AFC)

Match: South Korea vs Saudi Arabia
Venue: Rajamangala Stadium
Kickoff: Sunday January 26th, 2020; 19:30 KST

Last Time Out

Australia 0-2 South Korea

A pair of second half goals from Kim Dae-won and Lee Dong-gyeong twenty minutes apart were enough to send Kim Hak-bum's side to the final against Saudi Arabia on Sunday night.  Korea dominated the first half in terms of possession in key areas of the pitch but could not find the back of the net before the interval.

Australia were limited in their attack as Kang Yun-sung and Lee Yoo-hyeon successfully canceled out the Olyroos attacking options on the flanks and in particular Alex Gersbach, who despite his best efforts could not find a way through on the left.

The second half would present a different story as Korea would go in front just over ten minutes after the restart when Lee broke into an attacking position on the right side of the area and fired a shot on goal which bounded off the post but fell kindly to Kim Dae-won who made no mistake from close range, slotting the ball home.

The pressure from the Koreans would not subside, and their efforts were rewarded in the 76th minute when Lee Dong-gyeong, who came on as a substitute for Jeong Seung-won latched on to a ball just outside the area and fired in off the near post to Thomas Glover's left to double the advantage.  Australia could not find a way back and Korea's endeavor was rewarded with victory at the final whistle, not only with a place in the final but also an automatic berth for the Tokyo Olympics.

Saudi Arabia 1-0 Uzbekistan

In a tightly contested affair, it took Saudi Arabia until three minutes before the end of regular time to find a winner against the defending champions, with Abdullah Al-Hamdan deflecting second half substitute Nasser Al-Omran's effort on goal from outside the box into the net when it looked as if the match would be headed to extra time.

The first half was a stalemate as both sides could not find a way to break through offensively, with both back fours holding their ground and it went to the break goalless.  Each side could have had a goal midway through the second half, but Abdulrahman Ghareeb fired over the bar on the counter-attack, and Bobir Abdixolikov was denied the back of the net by a close range save from Mohammed Al-Yami.

The breakthrough would finally come just before the end of regular time, when a poorly cleared ball by Khojiakbar Alijonov fell for Al-Omran, whose effort on goal was steered into the back of the net by Al-Hamdan, resigning the defending champions to settle for a spot in the third place playoff on Saturday night.  There was little to choose between them, but Saad Ali Al-Shehri's men will contest the final knowing they have already booked a place in Tokyo.

Previous Meetings

The last time these two sides met, it finished 2-0 to South Korea in a friendly match played in November last year.  Lee Dong-jun was the first to hit the score sheet on 56 minutes, while Cho Kyu-sung added a second just over twenty minutes later.

In the previous two matches, the sides played to a scoreless draw in 2016, and Korea took away a 1-0 win when they played at the Asian Games in 2014, when the Koreans won the gold at home in Incheon.

Because of relative unfamiliarity with each other, it could turn out to be a very intriguing match.  South Korea may be considered a slight favorite, but who lifts the trophy on Sunday night will depend on which side can control the middle and be more clinical in front of goal.

The Adversary

Saudi Arabia defeats Uzbekistan in the semi-finals. 01.22.20
A late goal from Nasser Al-Omran saw the Saudis through to the final.  Photo courtesy of AFC.

Saudi Arabia struggled against Uzbekistan, looking fatigued midway through the match, and that could be a factor come Sunday depending on how well rested they are.  They have struggled at times to convert chances, as was the case against Uzbekistan, as only two of their eleven shots were on target and they had less than fifty percent of the ball.  However, they came through when it mattered late on and were able to take the win.

Their campaign has been marred by some controversy, as they narrowly edged Japan in their first match by a count of 2-1 thanks to a controversial penalty with only two minutes left in regulation play.  Feras Al-Birakan was adjudged to have been fouled in the penalty area, but some angles of the replay do not prove conclusive.  The call was given, however, and Abdulrahman Ghareeb scored from the spot.

There was a similar situation in their quarterfinal match against Thailand, where once again late in the match, a penalty was awarded for a foul which looked to have occurred outside the box, and initially, the call was for a free kick but after a consultation with VAR, a penalty was given in favor of the Saudis and it was Abdullah Al-Hamdan who did the honors to send his side forward to the semifinals.

There are a few players on this team worth noting.  The aforementioned Ghareeb has been an important spark from the bench for them, while Ayman Al-Khulaif is also capable of posing problems when in the attacking third.  Al-Hamdan is another player who can pop up in key moments and should be contained as much as possible in and around the sixteen yard box.  Korea's back four has done a good job so far in limiting opposition attacking players' chances and will have to do so again against the Saudis.

For Al-Shehri, the final goal is clear.

"For us, this is just the first step as we have set ourselves big targets.  Yes, we have qualified for the Olympics, but we must now continue to fight to win the AFC U23 Championship as it is very important for us to take the title home with us.  We must do everything we can to achieve that as we want to return to Saudi Arabia as the champions of this tournament," he concluded.

What to Watch

Kim Hak-bum reacts on the sideline during the semifinal against Australia, 01.22.20
Kim Hak-bum's lineup combinations have bolstered South Korea's depth at this tournament. Photo courtesy of AFC.

Kim Hak-bum has shuffled his lineup from match to match, so it will be curious to see who he will send out for the final as part of his starting eleven.  Several players have impressed in this tournament, including Oh Se-hun, Lee Dong-gyeong, and Lee Dong-jun, all of whom have scored two goals apiece.  Cho Kyu-sung has also found his name on the score sheet twice, while Kim Dae-won tallied the all-important go-ahead goal which turned out to be the winner against Australia in the semi-final.

But it hasn't been only about the attack for Korea at these finals.  The back four has held steady for the most part thanks to a complementary balance from the fullbacks and in particular Jeju United's Kang Yun-sung and Lee Yoo-hyeon of Jeonnam Dragons.

They have been supported well by the center back pairing of Daegu FC's Jeong Tae-wook and Ulsan Hyundai's Lee Sang-min, who spent the 2019 season on loan at J League 2 side V-Varen Nagasaki.

Kang did an industrious job of canceling out Alex Gersbach in the semi-final against Australia and has been a key cog in the defensive structure throughout the tournament.  Lee has shown to be a sturdy presence in defense of his sixteen yard box and has also been a presence on the right flank in attack when needed, as evidenced by his foray into the attacking third which led to Kim Dae-won's opener last time out.

If not for Jeong Tae-wook, Korea may have already exited the tournament by now, but the tower in the back has done a magnificent job in keeping his lines in front of Song Bum-keun, and was unfortunate not to find his name among the scorers when his headed effort bounded off Thomas Glover's post.

Lee Sang-min has captained the side for much of the tournament and has done an admirable job in keeping the entire unit together.  He will once again be a key component in the final not only defensively but also as Korea build out of the back moving forward.

The middle of the park is one area of the pitch where the Koreans have excelled in this tournament, thanks to the exploits of Lee Dong-gyeong, Maeng Seung-woong, Won Du-jae, and Jeong Seung-won.  They have managed the tempo of Korea's overall movement at both ends of the pitch and will be counted on once again as Korea attempt to lift a trophy which has eluded them since its inception in 2013.

Oh Se-hun, who has demonstrated his ability to be a handful for opposing defenders with his physical play up front, along with his presence as an aerial threat, should be preferred to Cho Kyu-sung, who, despite finding the net on a pair of occasions himself, does not have the tools to out-muscle what can be a difficult Saudi back line.

After the win against Australia, Kim Dae-won was aware that there is still work to be done.

"It’s such an honor that we’ve secured the ticket to the Olympics and I’m delighted that we won.  I’m really proud that we kept the (Olympic) record going.  However, we still have one game to go and we need to be prepared," he said.

Who to Watch

Al-Hamdan scored the winner against Thailand in the quarterfinal. 01.18.20
Abdullah Al-Hamdan scored the penalty winner against Thailand in the quarterfinal. Photo courtesy of AFC.

Abdullah Al-Hamdan - Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Hamdan is one of the most important players for this Saudi Arabia side.  Having played a majority of the minutes leading up to the final, he will be counted on once again to lead the line and find the back of the net as he did in the quarterfinal against Thailand and in the semifinal against Uzbekistan.

He is vital to their attack as he not only puts himself in position to take chances on goal but is also a good linking player for those around him in the offensive third.  He has a penchant of being in the right place at the right time when chances pop up in and around the box, and Korea has to be wary of his movements at all times, as not only will he attempt to get through on goal himself, but he will also try to open up space on the flanks for overlapping runs for his teammates.


It should prove to be a tight match, but based on form, the advantage has to go to Korea at the moment.  They looked far more convincing against Australia than Saudi Arabia did against Uzbekistan, and their depth has been a key factor in their current run.

That said, there is no reason to underestimate what Saudi Arabia has done at this tournament, and they should not be taken lightly.  There is a trophy at stake, and both teams will do their utmost to lift it once the final kick of the ball has been had.  Both sides are aloft with quality talent, so it all will come down to which set of players rise best to the occasion.

Both have sealed qualification to the Olympics, but another piece of hardware in the trophy case will do much to buoy their hopes of success in Japan come June and July.  Despite it being difficult to choose, Korea should prevail, providing they stick to the formula which has brought them to this point.

Predicted Score: South Korea 2-1 Saudi Arabia    

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