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Japan and South Korea Set to Renew Acquaintances in Yokohama

Japan and South Korea will meet Thursday night at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama for the first time since Paulo Bento's men lifted the 2019 EAFF-E1 title back in December 2019.  They will do so without the services of Son Heung-min, who was ruled out of the contest due to injury.  Hwang Ui-jo and Hwang Hee-chan are also unavailable due to COVID-19 protocols in France and Germany respectively.  Kim Jin-su and Hwang In-beom are both out indefinitely because of Achilles tendon injuries and Eom Won-sang will miss the encounter because of a knee injury and Yoon Bit-garam has also been dropped because of a calf problem, while Ju Se-jong recently tested positive for COVID-19.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the match along with Dan Orlowitz of The Japan Times.
(Photo courtesy of The Korea Times.)

Match: Japan vs South Korea
Venue: Nissan Stadium
Kickoff: Thursday, March 25th, 2021; 19:20 KST

The last time these two sides met was during the 2019 EAFF-E1 Championship, with Korea coming away victorious by a one goal margin, with Hwang In-boem scoring the only goal of the match in the 28th minute.  Korea won all three matches in which they played, not conceding a single goal in the process.  With several players lost for the upcoming match, things could turn out a bit differently.  The Korean team has come under fire in the local press in the past few days for making the trip to Japan, with many contending there is no need to play the match at all, but with World Cup qualifiers set to resume later in the year, Paulo Bento's men have had little chance to go through the paces so there was a need to get in some match time during the international break.  

The risk in travelling to Japan is that there is the potential that if players test positive for COVID during the trip, it could put the domestic season on hold, as several of the callups play in the K League.  However, is the rivalry between the two countries as relevant as it once was?

Dan Orlowitz of the Japan Times does not seem to think so.

"The most obvious explanation as to why the rivalry has lost its luster is because the two teams simply don't play each other anymore except for the EAFF E-1 Championship, which is 'only' the domestic squads and certainly doesn't carry as much weight as the full NTs.

The last time their 'A' men's teams faced off was in the 2011 friendly, before that it was the 2011 Asian Cup, then a couple more friendlies, then the 2007 Asian Cup before that, and then you have to rewind back past more friendlies to the 1998 Asian Games. Japan and South Korea haven't contested a World Cup qualifier since the 1998 cycle!

In the meantime, Japan has faced Australia in a world cup, 3 qualifying groups, and the Asian Cup finals, and South Korea-Iran has been in a similar position. So even though the two nations are very much political and cultural rivals, the soccer rivalry seems to have stopped mattering."

Only two strikers, Osako Yuya and Asano Takuma were called up for the match against Korea.

"Only calling up two strikers is a bit of a problem and a choice that reflects the fact that Japan hasn't had a killer choice at that position in a while.  Takuma Asano's been on quite the hot streak at Partizan so I'm eager to see how he gets on, it would be great to see him maintain that form for Japan." Orlowitz commented.

The Japanese will have a very short camp, which only kicked off on Monday, so it's a bit unclear as to what manager Hajime Moriyasu is expecting from his squad during this international break.  With such a short time to prepare, he may be satisfied just to avoid injuries to key players.  However, Takumi Minamino has been named to the side.

Hajime Moriyasu has been in charge of the Japanese A side since July 2018.  Photo courtesy of FIFA.com.
It's the first international friendly between the two sides since 2011 but there is still an edge present as Moriyasu was quoted as saying that people watch matches between Japan and South Korea differently. also adding that he hopes his side will "play with spirit."

For Bento, it will be a chance to have a look at some of his less-used and younger players.  Son Heung-min, Eom Won-sang and Ju Se-jong are out, among others, while Cho Jae-wan, Lee Jin-hyun and Kim In-sung have been called in as replacements.  World Cup qualifiers are fast approaching in June, so adding depth to the group could prove essential as Korea looks to qualify for its tenth consecutive finals.  Korea currently sit second in Group H with eight points from four matches, but with a match in hand.  They have yet to concede over that span.

Commenting on the risks associated with playing the match, Bento defended the decision to go ahead with playing the friendly.

""Football must go on as long as rules are being followed," Bento said. 

"We'll abide by health and safety protocols. My understanding is that our medical team is trying to make sure we'll be in a much safer environment than in November."

Japan, meanwhile, sit top of Group F with a perfect four wins from four and a match in hand as well.  How the match will play out remains to be seen, but neither side should be taking it lightly.  Matches between the foes have traditionally been close affairs, but it remains to be seen just how much they will be willing to go for it when the whistle sounds on Thursday night.

K League United would like to extend a warm thank you to Dan Orlowitz of The Japan Times for contributing to our report.

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