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Bragging Rights on the Line as Qualifiers Draw to a Close

South Korea will face off with Iran on Thursday night with both teams already having qualified for this year's World Cup in Qatar.  The only thing left to be decided is who finishes atop Group A in third round qualifying between the two.  Iran currently has a two point advantage, but a home win for the Taeguk Warriors would see them leapfrog into first with one round remaining.  However, Thursday night's hosts have not beaten their opponents since 2011.  Can they finally get over the hump?  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the match.
(Photo Credit: The Korea Herald)
 
Stalemate in Tehran

When the sides met earlier in the current round of qualifying, it finished all square as Son Heung-min gave Korea a lead just minutes after the second half had begun, only for Alireza Jahanbakhsh to equalize with just under a quarter of an hour left.  The draw snapped Iran's ten match winning run but they still have the advantage heading into the most critical game for both in the section as it will determine who will top the group.

There wasn't a lot to speak of in the first half by way of concrete chances for either side, but Son injected some life and pace into the match with a calm finish into the bottom half of the net to give his side the lead on 48 minutes.  Iran would not allow themselves to be beaten on the night as Jahanbakhsh headed home on 76 minutes, ensuring the spoils were to be shared at the final whistle.

Pandemic Leaves Several Players on the Sidelines

Both South Korea and Iran have concerns ahead of the match in terms of personnel due to the coronavirus, as several players for both squads will not be available due to a positive diagnosis.  Jung Woo-young had to withdraw and will be replaced by Nam Tae-heeNa Sang-ho will also have to miss out, with FC Seoul teammate Cho Young-wook taking his place.  It looks as though Paik Seung-ho will also be a late scratch as well, and will be replaced by Won Du-jae.

On the Iranian side, two of their most important players, Jahanbakhsh and Mehdi Taremi will also not play due to positive tests, which could be seen as a major let off for Korea as the duo has combined for seven of Iran's 13 goals in the qualifying section, and may consequently increase Korea's chances of getting a win.  Saman Ghoddos is also out for the same reason.

Topping the Group "Important" According to Hwang Hee-chan

After a stint away from the pitch due to injury, Hwang Hee-chan is healthy once again and realizes the importance of the upcoming match against Iran.

"Our goal is to win both of the remaining two matches, and we want to finish first in the group.  We are all pursuing the common goal and we all understand the importance of that match.  I am sure everyone has arrived here prepared to win," he began.

South Korean players train in Paju ahead of the final two qualifying matches.  Photo Credit: The Korea Herald.
He also reflected on the last time the two sides met.

"We left that match with a lot of confidence in ourselves, but we were also disappointed not to have won that game.  That's going to fuel us this time.  Since we'll be playing in front of our home fans, we'll be able to find an extra gear inside us," he concluded optimistically.

There is a good chance Hwang will be penciled into the starting eleven on Thursday night, but his minutes at club level for Wolves recently have been a bit inconsistent, as he played only sixteen minutes against Everton on March 13th and then just twelve minutes against Leeds in his club's last match.  He is a pacy customer down the right side, and his speed could be an asset in attacking Iran's back line.

Iran Will Be a "Difficult" Match: Bento

Paulo Bento knows his charges will have to be at their best to defeat Iran. Photo Credit: The Korea Times
Paulo Bento made it clear at a recent press conference that it is his goal for South Korea to win both remaining matches in qualifying and win the group outright, as he feels it would put his team in a better position ahead of the World Cup draw to be held in April.

"We have two games.  We should think of how we're going to face the next opponents and how we can do our job and try to finalize this qualifier in the best possible way," he stated.

"That is to get the six points and finish in first place.  After that, we will see what's coming and see where we're going to be in the draw.  I think we have a good challenge before that," he added.

He stressed that Iran will be a tough opponent to break down.  Korea traditionally has struggled against the Persian side, last beating them all the way back in 2011.

"In the physical aspect as well as in the tactical one, Iran have players that can break balance in our team, players that have experience.  I have no doubt about their quality.  We will try to reach the victory in order to reach the first position in the group.  I am sure that it will be a difficult game but at the same time, I am convinced that we can do that and we're going to try to do that without any doubt."

The match between the two sides kicks off at 8 p.m. on Thursday night at Seoul World Cup Stadium.

FNR

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