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South Korea Open Title Defence Against Malaysia

The AFC U-23 Asian Cup is set to get underway in a few days time and defending champions South Korea will play their first match against Malaysia.  They won all three of their qualifying group matches, outscoring their opponents 14-1 in the process.  Hwang Sun-hong will look to repeat the success of two years ago, but there will be challenges ahead.  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to kickoff.
(Photo Credit: The Korea Times)

Strikers Look to Get Off the Mark

Oh Se-hun was instrumental in his country's first-ever U-23 win in Thailand.  Can he provide the firepower up front to propel his side deep into the tournament? (Photo Credit: The Korea Times)
Three talented frontmen were named to the squad.  Oh Se-hun, who made the move to Japan this year, where he plays for Shimizu S-Pulse was a member of the championship side from two years ago in Thailand and brings a wealth of experience to the side.  He has had a bit of a rough start to football life for his new club, scoring just once in twelve total appearances across all competitions this year.  Playing for his country could be just what is needed to revive his instincts in front of goal.

Park Jeong-in led all scorers in qualifying with five goals and will be counted on to be on target if South Korea is to make another deep run in this year's tournament.  He has scored five goals and notched one assist in thirteen appearances for Busan IPark this year, and if his form from qualifying repeats itself, the Taeguk Warriors could have a great opportunity of finishing among the top sides once again.

Cho Young-wook was also named to the side.  His form in front of goal has simmered since the beginning of the season, but he has still managed two goals and two assists in fourteen matches.  Of more importance, however, is that he has been receiving regular first-team minutes with FC Seoul since the beginning of the season and will surely be a key piece for Hwang Sun-hong in Uzbekistan as well.


Can Lee Kang-in Be a Factor in Uzbekistan?

Lee Kang-in won the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup in Poland in 2019. Can he achieve greatness once more? (Photo Credit: The Korea Herald)
Lee Kang-in didn't particularly have a good season with RCD Mallorca in La Liga, scoring just once, adding two assists in thirty appearances this year, and, despite hopes to the contrary, never established himself as a regular starter in the squad, playing a full ninety minutes on just three occasions.  There have been questions surrounding his fitness for years and whether he has the physical tools to become the highly skilled technical player many were touting him to be.

Nonetheless, Hwang Sun-hong is counting on Lee to lead the squad as he did when he won the Golden Ball at the U-20 World Cup in Poland in 2019.  The former Best Young Player in Asia has an opportunity to revive his chances of playing first team football next season if he can muster a strong performance at this tournament, and with South Korea already considered an automatic favorite to progress through to the knockout stages, and with the unwavering support of his manager, it could prove to be the catalyst to motivate him to take on a leading role in the U-23 squad.  He has not enjoyed the same kind of support at club level in recent years, so a stint with the national team could be just the thing he needs to reverse his fortunes.

First Up: Malaysia

Luqman Hakim featured for Malaysia at this year's Southeast Asian Games. (Photo Credit: VN Express)
South Korea's opponent for their opening match will be Malaysia, who qualified for this year's tournament as winners of Group J in qualifying, ahead of Thailand, Laos, and hosts Mongolia.  While they kept clean sheets in all three of their matches, they only scored two goals, meaning that the opening match against South Korea will be the stiffest test for the side to date.  

Azfar Fikri scored both of the team's goals in qualifying, and the 22 year old midfielder is considered to be one of the most important players in the squad.  He is not the only one on notice, however, as the team's number one star looks to be Luqman Hakim, currently under contract with Belgian Jupiter Pro League side KV Kortrijk.  He has represented his country at every youth level dating back to his debut with the U-16 side in 2018.  His performances at youth level earned him a call-up to the senior Malaysian national team in May last year, where he played in a friendly match against Bahrain and World Cup qualifiers against the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and Thailand.

They may not be favorites to move to the quarterfinals, but should not be overlooked, as anything is possible in the first match of a tournament.  They will attempt to pull a surprise; Korea should be wary and go straight at them from the opening whistle.

FNR

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