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AFC U23 Championship Preview: South Korea vs China


South Korea take the next step on the road to Tokyo 2020 when they take on China in their first group stage match of the AFC Under-23 Championship in Thailand. With Uzbekistan and Iran making up the group, some media outlets have already dubbed it the ‘group of death’ so getting off to a strong start is vital. K League United’s national team correspondent Steve Price spoke to Jonathan White from the South China Morning Post about South Korea’s opener against China.
(photo via FIFA.com)

Steve Asks, Jonathan Answers

Steve Price: How are China expected to do in this tournament? Is Olympic qualification a realistic goal?

Jonathan White: Qualification is being spoken of by the media as a “miracle” and “zero chance”. They need to finish in a top four that includes Japan for that to happen but anything other than fourth place in the group would be an achievement.

The three teams in the group are much stronger than China, who have lost several of their warm up matches, including a 5-1 loss to Australia, who Korea drew 1-1 with. It could not be a much harder group. Uzbekistan won it last time and some of those players are still there.

SP: Who is in charge of the U23s these days and how will they approach the tournament?

JW: Hao Wei, the former China player and Shandong Luneng assistant, took over from Guus Hiddink in September. The Dutchman did not work out and Hao was brought in. He’s been joined by former China boss Gao Hongbao, who has helped him in the role. While the CFA chairman Chen Yuyuan is travelling out for the group games too.

They need to attack to get anything out of it and arguably the best players are in attack.

SP: Who are the standout players to look out for in this China side, and who will be a big name in the future?

JW: It’s not a bad squad at all and includes several players who are regulars for their Chinese Super League sides. The sad thing is that should really be the case for the lion’s share of the squad after the focus on under-23 rules in the league. They clearly failed.

Zhang Yuning of Beijing Guoan had a decent season after returning from Europe and is the most high profile player. He will start if he can shake off a knock. Next to him is Yang Liyu, the Guangzhou Evergrande forward who finished second to Oscar on the 2019 CSL assists chart. Chen Binbin of Shanghai SIPG is another player who can offer going forward.
Lesser known is captain Zhu Chenjie of Shanghai Shenhua. The centre back was named the CSL’s young player of the year last season. He’s only 19 and, along with the aforementioned players, is already involved with the full national team.
One relative newcomer is Shandong Luneng’s Duan Liuyu. He’s a recent call-up to the under-23s under his club assistant boss Hao and he had a breakout season in 2019 after making his debut. A good tournament could get the 21-year-old a national team call-up. 

Jonathan Asks, Steve Answers


Jonathan White:  How good is the South Korea squad? Will they miss Lee Kang-in and Paik Seung-ho?

Steve Price: It’s a relatively strong squad with most of the players getting plenty of minutes in the K League this season. Goalkeeper Song Bum-keun was Jeonbuk Motors’ number one last season and has been called up to the full national team in the past, and the squad is full of players like Jeong Tae-uk and Jeong Seung-won who have lots of appearances at the top end of the K League, as well as several players from Korea’s Under 20 side that reached the World Cup final in Poland last year. But that extra quality like Lee Kang-in and Paik Seung-ho would have really helped. You can never be too strong in a tournament as just one match below par can mean you get eliminated. While Korea don’t have those two stars, they do have Jeong Woo-young who isn’t too far away from breaking into the Freiburg team and has a few minutes of Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League football with Bayern Munich.

JW:   What is expected of them and can they keep up their Olympic appearance record?

SP: Anything less than Olympic qualification will be a massive disappointment for Korea. On paper, Group C looks to be one of the more tricky groups, but that could work in Korea’s favour as it could mean a slightly easier tie in the quarterfinals should they get that far. With three teams plus Japan qualifying for the Olympics, reaching the semi-finals would be enough to qualify for Tokyo 2020 if Japan also get that far, so ironically Koreans could be cheering on Japan in the quarterfinals. Winning the tournament would be nice, but to be honest, it’s all about trying to secure that Olympic qualification.

The KFA views these opportunities to try and earn a military exemption as so important that the under-23s took priority over the full national team when it came to player selection for the East Asia Cup in December. Paulo Bento originally planned to call up a couple of the under-23 players to the senior side but had to leave them out so that they would be fresh for this tournament.

JW:   Who will be the star? Is this a shop window for them?

SP: Oh Se-hun really impressed at the Under-20 World Cup and scored seven goals in Korea’s second tier last season. With Korea’s general lack of center forwards at all levels, he could be a key player for Korea in the future if he reaches his potential. Lee Dong-jun’s goals and assists have been huge in helping Busan return to the Korean top flight and he could be worth keeping an eye on during this tournament, and Ulsan’s Lee Dong-kyoung has already picked up a couple of caps for the full national side (and I strongly suspect he was one of the names Bento wanted to call up for the East Asia Cup). As for this being a shop window, I’d say that the Olympics will be a bigger window for them as a lot of the squad already play at top K League sides and some will be dreaming of a move to Europe. That said, a lot of players who have performed well under Kim Hak-beom have been given a chance by Paulo Bento in the past, so this tournament could also effectively be a shop window for a full national team call up.

South Korea play China on Thursday January 9th at 22:15 Korean time.

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