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South Korea Faces Iceland in Friendly Ahead of World Cup Qualifiers

South Korea will face Iceland in the first of two friendlies this month as part of the team's preparations for upcoming World Cup qualifiers later this month and next month.  They will be shorthanded, however, as Hwang Hee-chan and Son Heung-min have been ruled out due to injury.  Iceland played to a 1-1 draw with Uganda in a friendly earlier in the week and have lost a bit of flair following successive qualifications for EURO 2016 and the World Cup in Russia two years later.  They finished fifth in European qualifying in Group J, registering only nine points from ten matches.  This will be an opportunity for Paulo Bento to assess the depth in his team as well.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the match.
(Photo credit: Korea JoongAng Daily)

Injury Concerns for South Korea

Son Heung-min is a notable absence for South Korea in their upcoming matches. Photo credit: The Korea Herald.
The national team will be without two of its greatest assets as Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan will be out for the foreseeable future because of injuries.  According to a report from Sky Sports, Son is set to be out of action for the rest of the month, according to coach Antonio Conte, meaning he will miss the Carabao Cup tie against Chelsea as well as the North London Derby against Arsenal shortly thereafter.  

It also means there is a good chance he will miss both World Cup qualifiers against Lebanon on January 27th and Syria on February 1st.  Both are away matches, so it seems evident that Paulo Bento would be smart not to risk his number one star as he recovers and works his way back to full match fitness.

Hwang Hee-chan was injured in a match against Brighton and Hove Albion on December 15th playing for Wolves and is not expected back until February, which also likely rules him out of both qualifying matches.  Korea currently sits second behind Iran in Group A on fourteen points with four matches remaining, meaning that they will likely have to win out if they stand any chance of finishing top of their section.  Without two key stars, it could be a tall ask.

In other team news, Kwon Kyung-won's most recent PCR test returned a negative result, and he will be joining the team training camp in Turkey but will most likely not play against Iceland.

Underwhelming Iceland Miss Out on Qatar

After qualifying for EURO 2016 where they made it to the knockout phase and the World Cup in Russia two years later, Iceland seems to have lost a lot of the spark which made them one of the up-and-coming teams to watch in Europe.  They fared poorly in World Cup qualifying, finishing fifth in Group J with a record of two wins, three draws, and five losses, scoring twelve goals and conceding eighteen.

Granted, they were in a tough section with the likes of Germany, Romania, and a very surprising North Macedonia who are fresh off their first-ever tournament appearance at EURO 2020.  The current squad, however, is quite inexperienced, with Jón Daði Böðvarsson and Arnór Ingvi Traustason the only two players with more than ten international caps.  

Their 1-1 result in a friendly against Uganda suggests there is a lot of room to grow with the new-look squad.  A turnover of generations will be a challenge to negotiate, but head coach Arnar Viðarsson is ready to meet it head-on.

Joo Min-kyu Overlooked Again

Joo Min-kyu is still waiting for his first call to the senior national team. Photo credit: The Korea Herald
Despite becoming the first Korean player in five years to win the K League 1 scoring title, Jeju United's Joo Min-kyu was once again left off the national team roster for the current cycle of matches.  Bento has insisted that he doesn't just look at how many goals an attacking player scores but at how well a player could fit into his system.

Joo maintained that he simply has to work harder.

"Some good players have been chosen, and I think I was left off because I wasn't good enough.  I will be picked if I play better.  I have to be better and try harder," he commented at a press conference recently.

"Everyone wants to make the national team at some point.  I have not given up on that dream yet," he concluded.

South Korea Squad: A Close Glance

Four goalkeepers have been called once again by Bento.  He has stated in the past that he would like to have a look at all of them before deciding concretely on who his number one will be but Jo Hyeon-woo should be the favorite, although it would be no surprise to see Kim Seung-gyu get the nod.

Kang Sang-woo is one to watch for in the back line as several observers have suggested that he could be the answer to Korea's problems at the right fullback position.  The midfield is strengthened by the presence of Ulsan Hyundai trio Won Du-jae, Lee Dong-gyeong, and Lee Dong-jun, but Gwangju FC's Eom Ji-sung is also one to pay attention to.

There is no clear favorite up top, with the selections of Kim Gun-hee, Cho Gue-sung, and Cho Young-wook.  Kim could finally make his first appearance for his country this time around, as he was called up during the last cycle, but did not see any match action.

This is a critical stage for the team.  The first tune-up against Iceland will reveal how prepared the side is with World Cup qualifiers just around the corner.  With European-based players not in the squad, it will be a chance for the mostly domestic-based players to shine and perhaps raise their value as Korea looks to book its tenth consecutive World Cup finals ticket in the near future.  
South Korea's full squad for the January training camp in Turkey. Image credit: KFA

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