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Men's Olympic Football Quarter-Final Preview: South Korea vs Mexico

South Korea closed out the group stage in style on Wednesday night with a resounding 6-0 thumping of Honduras on the strength of a Hwang Ui-jo hat trick, his first three goals of the tournament to date.  They will next face Mexico in the quarter-finals after the CONCACAF side brushed aside South Africa 3-0 to take two out of three wins in Group A.  Kim Hak-bum feels his side is now starting to take stride in the competition but their opposition on Saturday night should not be taken with a grain of salt.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the all-important encounter.
(Photo courtesy of AFC)

Match: South Korea vs Mexico
Venue: International Stadium, Yokohama
Kickoff: Saturday, July 31st, 2021; 20:00 KST

South Korea's Best Performance to Date

The match with Honduras showed what South Korea is capable of on several different levels, as they played an aggressive style for the duration of the ninety minutes to pick up the win which would take them to the knockout phase for the sixth consecutive time this decade.  

Hwang Ui-jo caught lightning in a bottle against the Central American side, converting twice from the penalty spot, and sweeping home his side's third goal after pouncing on a rebound from Kim Jin-kyu's dangerous ball in from the right, a classic poacher's finish on the stroke of halftime.  Just minutes before, Carlos Melendez had received his marching orders, putting his side down to ten men after a second bookable offense and that seemed to sound the knell for Miguel Falero's men.

Won Du-jae also scored from the penalty spot, Korea's second only five minutes after Hwang had put the team in front.  Kim Jin-ya finished off a lovely move midway through the second half, taking a cutback pass from Seol Young-woo as the ball slid across the face of the Honduran penalty area with the defenders in white rooted to the grass, and Kim struck beautifully high into the net.  Lee Kang-in would enter the match as a substitute in the second half once again, and made his presence count as he rounded out the scoring with just under ten minutes to play, a searing shot across Alex Güity between the Honduran sticks.

South Korea celebrates Won Du-jae's penalty kick which made the score 2-0. Photo courtesy of AFC.
Kim Hak-bum will feel a fair bit more confident following the past two results but knows there is still work to be done.

"It's great to see the players get better and grow tighter with each passing match.  We may have only won the group here but this is only the beginning.  We'll have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again for the knockout stage," he said.

Kim knows Mexico will be a difficult opponent but accepts it as a reality in football.

"We don't get to pick who we're facing.  We'll play the style of football that we've prepared to play, no matter who's coming up next," he concluded.

Key Tactical Pieces

Lee Kang-in From the Bench

The South Korean manager has shuffled the deck well, using all of his pieces to his advantage in the past two victories.  In particular, the decision to bring Lee Kang-in from the bench has paid dividends in a huge way, as the Valencia CF man has found the back of the net on three occasions, making him one of the leading scorers at the tournament following the group stage.  

Considering the success with this decision, one could contend it would be better for Lee to come in fresh at some point in the second half and have him finish the match, rather than start from the first whistle and perhaps not be available at a later point, whether due to substitution or other circumstances.  This tactical switch has done wonders for the continuity in the side moving forward, as he is perhaps the most capable of providing a needed injection in the later stages of a match.

Jeong Tae-wook (C) has been the anchor of South Korea's back four. Photo courtesy of AFC.
Defensive Realignment

In addition, the inclusion of Park Ji-soo into the back four has also had a noticeable positive effect as the unit has looked much more stable in comparison to the first match against New Zealand.  Pairing with captain Jeong Tae-wook, the duo have done well to cover their spaces in the defensive third and have both proven to be factors in the team's offensive set piece strategy, particularly from corners.  Both are fully aware that they will have to be at their best with another difficult opponent in front of them come Saturday night but if the last two matches are an indicator, they will certainly be up for the task.

A Strong Midfield

Wing play has also featured in South Korea's ball possession strategy and surely will again, as the likes of Kang Yoon-sung, Seol Young-woo, and Eom Won-sang, whose speed, in particular, can be a liability to any opposing fullback, has shown since the tournament began.  Lee Dong-gyeong and Won Du-jae make an effective pair in midfield as well, owing to their great chemistry as teammates of K League 1 side and defending AFC Champions League holders Ulsan Hyundai, and Kim Jin-kyu showed he can also be effective in a holding role as he demonstrated against Honduras.

Squad Depth  

Others, such as Song Min-kyu of Pohang Steelers can also provide width and depth up and down the flanks.  He did not feature in the final group match but will most likely be available for the knockout stage.  Jeong Seung-won picked up a knock against Romania and was kept out against Honduras as well but could be ready to go on the weekend.  Lee Dong-jun has done his share of grazing up and down the right flank in each of the past two matches and is also an option following back to back strong performances.

What to Expect From Mexico

Alexis Vega has scored twice for Mexico at these Games and will be their main man up front. Photo courtesy of Goal.com.
Japan may have put a bit of a wrench into their stride in the second group stage match but El Tri are never to be taken lightly at a major tournament, regardless of the age category.  Alexis Vega has scored a pair of goals to hold the lead in the side, finding the net against both France and South Africa but they have a host of attacking options at their disposal which head coach Jaime Lozano will use at his own will.

The talismanic figure in the team is goalkeeper and captain Guillermo Ochoa, who has been a standout with the senior national team since 2005 and is a veteran of four FIFA World Cups.  He was a key factor in Mexico's 2-1 win over South Korea's senior side at the last finals in Russia in 2018.

Other notable names include center back César Montes, who played all three matches in the group stage, left back Érick Aguirre, who played in the first two matches in the group stage and should return for the match against South Korea, and winger Uriel Antuna, who will be a constant presence on the right.  Cruz Azul's Luis Romo and Club América's Henry Martin are the other two overage players in the squad and will give the side an injection of experience in attack.

Carlos Rodriguez was sent off against South Africa and Johan Vásquez was sent off against Japan, meaning that both will not be available for the upcoming match.


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