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South Korea Set to Open Their World Cup Journey Against Uruguay

South Korea opens its World Cup odyssey against Uruguay on Thursday night in the hopes of a positive result.  Nestled in a difficult group, execution will be paramount if Paulo Bento's men have hopes to progress through the group stage for just the second time since co-hosting the tournament with Japan back in 2002, where they advanced to the semi-final stage.  What is to be expected?  KLU's Branko Belan looks ahead to the opener. 

A Tough First Test

When the draw for this year's World Cup was finalized, the automatic consensus was that South Korea would have an outside chance at best of advancing to the knockout stage of the tournament.  After all, they had done so just once before - when they co-hosted the tournament with Japan back in 2002, making it all the way to the semi-finals and finishing fourth.  Their first opponents at this year's World Cup in Qatar will be Uruguay, against whom they have not had a great deal of success thus far, with the South Americans winning five of six meetings between the two sides, thus far, including both previous meetings at the World Cup, the last coming in the Round of 16 in South Africa in 2010.  

However, the last time the teams played, it was Korea who came out on top in a 2-1 win back in 2018.  Hwang Ui-jo and Jung Woo-young were the goal scorers in that match and both have been called up to the final squad by Paulo Bento for this tournament.  Uruguay are considered overwhelming favorites in the opening match, but if Korea can navigate the first half hour and possibly get on the scoresheet, it could change the tide of the match.  In order for that to happen, they must play mistake-free football to give themselves a chance.

Who Leads the Line?

There has been a lot of speculation with regard to who will be the first choice striker for Korea at this World Cup.  Hwang Ui-jo has been Bento's pick since he took over following the last World Cup, but Cho Gue-sung has gained considerable support over the course of the past year to take on that mantle for himself.  He finished joint-top scorer in K League 1 with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in 2022, winning the FA Cup and securing a spot in Asia in the process.  He has notched four goals for his country in fifteen appearances with his most recent tally coming against China in the East Asian Football Championship in July.

Hwang's season has not been one to remember, as he has been used sparingly at best with Olympiacos, and, many contend he has lost a step and may not fare well against some very tough defenders in the likes of Diego Godin, Joao Cancelo, and Daniel Amartey.

One thing is for sure - Korea will need a scoring threat in the final third, and it might be in Bento's best interests to go with youth over experience this time around.  Facing such difficult opposition will require a more dynamic approach, quick decision-making, and execution.

An Update on Son Heung-min

Son Heung-min will be chasing history with Korea at this World Cup as he looks to become the country's leading goal scorer in the competition.
While he was still included in the final squad for Qatar, there is no guarantee as to how much Son Heung-min will play for his country at this World Cup.  It is no secret that he is the team's most important and recognizable player, but playing him could be risky.  He has been in training with the side and is keen to be out on the pitch with his teammates.  In the grand scheme of things, he may be the one to ultimately decide whether he is ready to go for the opening match, or if he will have to wait until later in the group stage to be included in the action.

He is also chasing a bit of history as well.  If he manages to score at this tournament, he will become the all-time leading scorer for Korea in World Cup competition.  He scored the now famous second goal against Germany in the last World Cup and will be looking to add to his record in Qatar, but will have to do so against some stiff competition.

A Big Stage for Kim Min-jae

Kim Min-jae will be making his World Cup debut in Qatar.
One of the players who will look to have an impact for Korea at this World Cup is Kim Min-jae, who has had a very successful first season with SSC Napoli in Serie A.  He has been one of the main reasons for the Italian league leaders' success thus far and will be looking to translate that onto the international stage in Qatar.  It will be a matter of redemption of sorts for him as well, as he did not play at the last World Cup due to injury, so he will be looking to leave an impression on the competition this time around.

He missed action earlier in the year as he was on the sidelines once again, and his status for the national team was in doubt for a while, but he has returned stronger than ever and will be counted on to anchor the back line as the Taeguk Warriors look to create a sensation and advance to the knockout stage of the tournament for the first time in two decades.  With Kim Young-gwon, the two form one of the more steady central defense pairings of any squad in the tournament.  He will be one of the most important pieces in Bento's side to deal with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Federico Valverde, and the Ayew brothers.

Uruguay Spotlight: Federico Valverde

Federico Valverde could turn out to be one of the biggest stars at this year's World Cup.
With Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani nearing the end of their careers, the future is now for Real Madrid star Federico Valverde.  He has amassed six goals and a pair of assists in fourteen appearances for the Spanish giants this season and has become one of the side's most important figures in the process.  He was also key to their Champions League success back in May of this year and will be counted on to lead his country at this World Cup as well.

At just 24 years of age, he has already established himself as a starter for the national team and could eclipse 50 international caps in Qatar if La Celeste are able to make a deep run.  For that to happen, Valverde will have to be at the top of his game.  It will be his first World Cup, as he was left out of the final 23 man squad four years ago after being a provisional call-up, so he will want to have an impact in the Middle East and will certainly be one for Korea to keep an eye on.

Introspection: Nothing to Lose

Hwang In-beom is a key piece in midfield for Paulo Bento.
While they may not be the most talented side on paper in the group, there is no reason for Paulo Bento's side to hold back when they take the pitch on Thursday afternoon local time in their opening match.  There are a lot of good pieces with this squad, and they have to play with belief if they are going to take anything from their opponents in the group stage.  If Son Heung-min is indeed unable to start against Uruguay, look to Lee Kang-in to fill the void.  If Jung Woo-young and Hwang In-beom play to their capabilities in midfield, they may be able to establish some positive flow to their play moving forward.

Holding strong in the back will be key against a quick Uruguay side, and finishing in the final third will be critical in their hopes of getting a result.  The World Cup has had a way of producing shocks on more than one occasion - just look at what Korea managed to do in knocking Germany out of the last tournament at the end of the group stage.  Could Thursday's match be another chapter in the making?  With kickoff just around the corner, now is the time to find out.


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