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Traditional Rivals Set to Face Off in Last Eight

South Korea narrowly edged Thailand to top Group C and move on to the quarter-finals of this year's U-23 Asian Cup in Uzbekistan.  A solitary goal from Go Jae-hyeon was enough to put them over the line in what was an expectedly tight match.  Next up for the defending champions is a rivalry match with Japan to determine who will move on to the final four.    KLU's Branko Belan previews the knockout encounter.
(Photo Credit: AFC)

Go Jae-hyeon Seals Victory in Tense Match

There was always a sense that the final group match with Thailand would be a tense affair, and to that end, it did not disappoint.  South Korea needed to win in order to ensure safe passage to the knockout stage of the competition, knowing full well that Vietnam would very likely defeat Malaysia, which did happen, making it necessary for them to take care of business on their end.

The opening half hour of the match did not produce anything of consequence for either side, but South Korea would go into the lead ten minutes before the break when Cho Young-wook played a ball splitting two defenders and putting Go Jae-hyeon through on goal.  The Daegu FC youngster calmly slid the ball past  Nopphon Lakhonphon in the Thailand net for a one goal advantage.  There was a review to see if he had been in an offside position, but the replay clearly showed otherwise and the goal stood.  The same player had a chance to double the lead on the next offensive move forward, but fired wide from close range.  He then played Oh Se-hun clear in front of goal, but the former Ulsan Hyundai man scuffed his effort and the Taeguk Warriors went to the interval with just the one goal lead.

The second half was a nip-and-tuck affair, with the holders moving forward well, but they failed to add to the scoreline.  Fortunately, Go Dong-min made a crucial save in the latter stages of the half to preserve a clean sheet and ensure that the defending champions would continue to have an opportunity to defend their title from two years ago.

Oh Se-hun may be a doubt for his side in the quarter-final, as he was substituted in the second half after taking a blow to the lower back, leaving him writhing in pain on the ground.  While he was initially able to continue, he would not last long and eventually left the pitch in some discomfort.  If he is able to play, he may be considered for the starting eleven or could be used as a substitute.  Should he come from the bench, Jeong Sang-bin will take his spot in the lineup.

Lee Jin-young was suspended for the match against Thailand after picking up two yellow cards against Vietnam and will be available as he returns from suspension.

A Rivalry Ready For Another Chapter

Up next for South Korea is traditional rival Japan, who finished second in Group D on goal difference but level on points with Saudi Arabia following two wins and a draw in the group stage.  They closed out the opening phase of the tournament with a comprehensive 3-0 victory against Turkmenistan, thanks to goals from Kuryu Matsuki, Kein Sato, and Taika Nakashima, but will be short a man for the quarter-final because Shunsuke Mito was sent off with a straight red card in the 65th minute.

There will be much more than just progression to the semi-final on the line when the sides meet on Sunday night.  While they haven't played each other often in the past decade, the three matches on record were all memorable in their own right.

South Korea bested Japan at the 2018 Asian Games in extra time by a final score of 2-1, with Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan scoring the goals, and Son Heung-min assisting on both goals, while Ayase Ueda pulled one back late for the Japanese but it wasn't enough.  South Korea also won the 2014 edition of the same tournament over their rivals with a 1-0 win.  The last time the sides met at this tournament was back in 2016, a match that Japan won 3-2, so it may be said that a measure of payback is in order.

Manager's Assessment

Hwang Sun-hong was satisfied overall that his team advanced to the knockout stage of the competition, but offered his thoughts ahead of the match versus Japan.

"Overall, we had some good moments and bad moments [against Thailand], but eventually our first goal was to advance to the quarter-finals and we achieved that, so I would like to congratulate my players.  However, we still need to improve and increase our overall capabilities in front of goal," he began.

He also addressed two particular challenges facing his players before the match on Sunday night.

“We have two challenges in the quarter-finals, the first one is to be more aggressive and organised.  The second is regarding speed and pace.  Compared to the first two matches, our pace [versus Thailand] was slower.  These are the two major challenges ahead of the quarter-finals,” he concluded.

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