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South Korea Faces Toughest Test In Bid to Advance

South Korea heads into their final group match against Portugal on the heels of a 3-2 loss to Ghana, which saw them erase a two goal deficit in the second half, but ultimately come up short at the final whistle.  There are several considerations to be mulled over ahead of the final group stage fixture, including potential permutations which could see Paulo Bento's men through if they manage to do the impossible and take all three points from the match.  KLU's Branko Belan takes a closer look at what to expect.

Missed Opportunities

As they had against Uruguay, South Korea came out strongly in the first half against Ghana, controlling much of the possession and earning several corners - six within the first twenty minutes of the match, but for all their dominance early on, were unable to capitalize.  They had the African side on their heels, but could not carve out an advantage and it would cost them when the Black Stars took the lead thanks to a close range finish from Mohammed Salisu, who touched the ball home from Jordan Ayew's free kick on 24 minutes.  Things would get worse ten minutes later when Ayew once again played provider, crossing into the box again for Mohammed Kudus to head home in front of Kim Young-gwon.

In a match that saw them have considerably more possession in the first frame, they were two goals behind at the break and any hope of getting back into the match looked bleak at best.  Prior to the tournament, the match with Ghana was seen as Korea's best chance for points, and they didn't afford themselves the best start, but it would quickly head in the opposite direction at the beginning of the second half.

Cho Gue-sung Rises to the Occasion

Cho Gue-sung is a future star for South Korea.
With Korea continuing to be down by a pair of goals, Paulo Bento opted to switch out Kwon Chang-hoon with Lee Kang-in, and it had an immediate effect, as the RCD Mallorca man quickly put his stamp on proceedings, crossing into the area from the left with pinpoint accuracy for the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors forward in position to head the ball past Ghanaian 'keeper Lawrence Ati-zigi.  It would not be long until Cho would add to his tally, towering above the central defense three minutes later to level the match.  He thus became the first Asian player to score a pair of headed goals in a World Cup match.

This is an even more remarkable achievement considering the fact that Korea had scored only three headed goals in their previous 35 World Cup matches.  Cho has been touted as the successor to Hwang Ui-jo for some time now, and his performance should keep him in the spotlight for his country for years to come.  Korea will soon undergo a change of generations after this tournament, with a lot of young talent coming up through the pipeline, so a younger, swifter, more attacking side will certainly be something to look forward to.

Defensive Errors Costly Once Again

Kim Jin-su has had mixed reviews about his performance at this World Cup.
All three of Ghana's goals came as a result of defensive errors.  A poor attempt at clearing the ball out of the box led to the first goal, poor marking led to the second, and the third could have been prevented by better positioning.  Korea have struggled in both of their matches with balls over the top, particularly on the wings, and that will be an area of concern once again when they face Portugal.

They did well to keep their defensive shape against Uruguay, but that aspect of play got away from them against Ghana, but Portugal is a different opponent entirely.  Their front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, and João Félix will cause Korea's back line all kinds of problems.  The first half hour of the match will dictate much of what could happen the rest of the way.  If Korea want to have even an outside chance of progression to the knockout stage, they have to be mistake-free for the entire ninety minutes, but that is easier said than done, especially considering how they have performed thus far.

Portugal Spotlight: Bruno Fernandes

Bruno Fernandes has been on fire for Portugal and will be one to watch.
The 28 year old attacking midfielder took over the captaincy at Manchester United this season as has also been one of his nation's most influential players both in the run-up to and during the first two matches in Qatar.  He scored a pair of goals in Portugal's 4-0 victory over Nigeria in the team's final friendly before the tournament.  He has been on a bit of a tear lately, with two assists versus Ghana in their first match, and followed that up by scoring both goals in the win over Uruguay.

A player with an insatiable work rate, he is most often employed as the ten both at club and international level, but also has the ability to play as an advanced eight in a three man midfield.  This versatility has developed his worth as an attacker, giving managers several options on how to best use him.  

Key passes, chance creation, and his work rate off the ball will be something for Korea to be particularly concerned about as he will look to pull Korea's defenders out of position to open up the field for the players around him.  If he is successful in doing so, it could be a long ninety minutes for Bento's charges on the final matchday in the group.

The End of the Road for Bento?

Was the loss to Ghana Paulo Bento's last match as South Korea manager?
Paulo Bento was served with a red card by match referee Anthony Taylor at the final whistle against Ghana after protesting the Englishman's decision to blow the whistle denying Korea the chance to take a final corner after ten minutes of injury time had elapsed at the end of proceedings.  He will not be allowed to have any contact with his coaching staff or the players as a result, and there has already been some speculation of his making plans to leave Korea after returning from the tournament.

A decision on a potential successor has not been discussed, at least not publicly, so it is a development that will have to be kept on the back burner at least until the end of the tournament.  Would the KFA consider another foreign  coach as a replacement, or would they look to find a Korean manager to take the reigns?  The only other foreign manager since 2010 has been Uli Stielike, who was in charge of the team from 2014 to 2017.


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