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2023 AFC Asian Cup: Saudi Arabia vs. South Korea Preview

The knockout stages of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup have begun and South Korea face a tricky tie against Saudi Arabia this Tuesday, local time. Pressure is on manager Jurgen Klinsmann after two straight draws, including one against relative minnows Malaysia. The German, then, could be fighting for his job if the Taeguk Warriors don't put a performance in against Saudi Arabia.
(Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Overview & Match Information

Fixture: Saudi Arabia vs. South Korea
Competition: 2023 AFC Asian Cup, Round of 16
Venue: Education City Stadium, Al-Rayyan
Date: Tuesday 30th January, 19:00 (Wed. 31st January, 01:00 AM KST)

South Korea return to Education City Stadium, the scene of the dramatic win over Portugal in the 2022 World Cup, to take on a Saudi Arabia side that has conceded just one goal so far in the Asian Cup. A win sets up a quarterfinal clash with either Australia or Indonesia who meet Sunday in the competition's first Round of 16 match.

[READ: South Korea's potential route to Asian Cup final]

Recent Form

Korea head into this Round of 16 clash on the back of two straight draws. The most recent, a six-goal thriller with Malaysia, saw Korea regain the lead in the 94th minute but were unable to see the game out and Malaysia struck again in the 15th minute of time added on. 

A Jeong Woo-yeong header had given Korea the lead on 21 minutes but two in 11 second-half minutes had Malaysia with their noses in front. Lee Kang-in's free-kick levelled on 83 minutes before the game was turned on its head again with Oh Hyeon-gyu being brought down in the box and Son Heung-min stepping up to convert the resulting penalty. Korea are on a run of 11 unbeaten with seven wins. In competitive action under Jurgen Klinsmann, it's three wins and two draws.

Saudi Arabia are unbeaten in eight and picked up two wins and a draw in Group F. Roberto Mancini's men have kept seven cleansheets in their last eight matches, including two on the bounce. 

Team News

Goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu is Korea's only definite absentee but forward Hwang Hfee-chan appeared to hint during a post-match interview that he may have picked up an injury, making him a slight doubt for the clash with Saudi Arabia. Lee Ki-je missed the 3-3 draw with Malaysia due to a hamstring problem and wasn't even named on the bench. With Kim Jin-su now fit, however, Klinsmann does at least have options at left back with Seol Young-woo able to play on both sides.

For Saudi Arabia, with nine changes made to the side for the 0-0 draw against Thailand, Ahmed Ali Al Kassar is expected to return between the sticks, while the likes of Mohamed Kanno and Saud Abdulhamid were also rested.

Head-to-Head

The two teams met last September at St. James' Park, the home of Saudi-owned Newcastle United. Cho Gue-sung got the game's only goal in a 1-0 Korea win, the Taeguk Warriors's third against Saudi Arabia from eight total meetings. The last three, though, have been friendlies - a 0-0 draw in January 2019 heading into the Asian Cup, and a 2-0 Korea win in January 2015. The last competitive meeting was a 2010 World Cup qualifier in June 2009 when the two teams played out a 0-0 draw. The last time they met at a major tournament was the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, drawing 1-1 in the group opener.

The Opposition

(Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia, ranked fifth in Asia and 56th in the world, are led by Premier League and Serie A-winning manager Roberto Mancini. The Italian has been in charge since August 2023, signing a four-year contract, and has overseen nine matches in charge, winning four, drawing two, and losing three. At the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia eased past Oman 2-1, beat Kyrgyzstan 2-0, and drew with Thailand to finish top of Group F.

Mancini's selection has been described as "a blend of youth development and strategic selection" and a "mix of seasoned veterans and promising young talents," according to Khel Now. All 26 players in the squad are on the books of Saudi Pro League teams but only four who featured in that famous win over Argentina in the World Cup remain in the squad. Three who started Hassan Al-Tambakti, Saud Abdulhamid, and Mohamed Kanno as well as Haitham Asiri who came off the bench. Nawaf Al-Aqidi, Abbas Al-Hassan, and Ayman Yahya were forced to withdraw due to injury and were subsequently replaced by Mohammed Al-Rubaie, Mohammed Al-Breik, and Talal Haji. The most capped player in the squad is 32-year-old Salem Al-Dawsari. The Al-Hilal midfielder has 81 caps and has scored 22 goals. Defender Ali Al-Bulaihi and Mohamed Kanno, also both of Al-Hilal, are next with 50 caps each. So far at the Asian Cup, goals have come from Abdulrahman Ghareeb, Ali Al Bulayhi, ' Mohamed Kanno, and Faisal Al Ghamdi.

Faisal al-Ghamdi celebrates against Kyrgyzstan (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Nine players are on the books of Al-Hilal, a handful of which - Mohammed Al-Breik, Nasser Al-Dawsari, Mohamed Kanno, Salem Al-Dawsari - started for Al-Hilal in the 2021 AFC Champions League final against Pohang Steelers. Nasser Al-Dawsari famously scored the game's opening goal with barely a minute on the clock.

In terms of those who are teammates of the megastars who have left Europe for the Saudi Pro League, the Al-Hilal contingent shares a dressing room with Neymar, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Sergej Milinković-Savić, those on the books of Al-Ahli do so with Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy, Riyad Mahrez, the Al-Nassr players train and play with Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Alex Telles, and Aymeric Laporte, and Al-Ittihad N'Golo Kante, Fabinho, and Karim Benzema.

[READ: Where to watch 2023 AFC Asian Cup]

What the Stats Say

Both teams have had the lion's share of possession. Korea the most with 69.7%, Saudi Arabia 69.1%. They can't both dominate possession so which team takes the initiative and tries to control the game will be something to keep tabs on. Korea have made the most passes with 2,101 while Saudi are third with 1,930. The two occupy first and second for passing accuracy - Korea 89.3%, Saudi Arabia 88.2%. It's a similar situation with passes to the final third with Saudi top thanks to 87.5% accuracy and Korea second with 76.3%. The two teams occupy the top two spots when it comes to deep completions, too - Saudi Arabia with 48, Korea with 43.

Korea's eight goals scored is slightly higher than their xG of 7.17 - the second highest behind Iraq. Saudi Arabia have underperformed with four goals scored from an xG of 6.83. Defensively, though, the Green Falcons have been very hard to play against and can boast of the lowest xGA value of 1.08. For comparison, Korea are 12th in this regard with an xGA of 3.17 (6 conceded).

Saudi Arabia rank second for defensive duel success rate at 69.1%, Korea slightly lower at 64.6% (11th). In terms of aerial duels, Saudi Arabia are fourth with 54.6% success, while Korea are 23rd with 31.1%.

Hwang In-beom and Lee Kang-in occupy the top two spots for through passes with 12 and 11 respectively. Hwang is top for through passes per 90, too, with 3.94 while Kim Young-gwon is second with 3.28, and Lee Kang-in is fourth with three. Lee Kang-in and Lee Jae-sung have both made five key passes, joint-top. But for deep completions, Son Heung-min is first with 13; Lee Kang-in is fifth with seven.

 

Who to Watch

Kim Min-jae

(Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
South Korea have shipped more goals than they would've liked, although Jurgen Klinsmann has said that two of Malyasia's goals shouldn't have counted. Defensive positioning from setpieces hasn't been great but Kim Min-jae has been one of, if not the, standout performer for Korea so far. He has been almost impossible to dribble past and his pace and power have helped Korea kill off opposition counterattacks and start ones of their own. Kim has won 75% of his defensive duels, seventh among defenders and fifth as a centre back, and in terms of his build-up contributions, sits third for total passes made (239) while Hwang In-beom is second (272).

K Leaguer to Watch

Kim Tae-hwan


After back-to-back substitute appearances, Kim Tae-hwan was given the nod to start in Korea's final group match against Malaysia. It was a solid display, too, with 80% passing accuracy, 57% long passing accuracy, eight crosses, an 80% success rate for dribbles, and a 79% success rate for duels. Kim, even at 34, possesses lightning-quick pace and helped Korea move up the pitch quickly against Malaysia. He offers more aggression than Korea's other full backs, not to mention a wealth of experience. If selected, Kim Tae-hwan would help Korea get around a defensively very solid Saudi Arabia side.

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