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2026 World Cup Asian Qualifier Preview: South Korea vs. Thailand

South Korea host Thailand this Thursday in a 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifier, the first of two back-to-back matches against the War Elephants. It'll be Hwang Sun-hong's first match in charge as caretaker manager as the Taeguk Warriors look to put behind the disappointment of the AFC Asian Cup semifinal exit.

Overview & Match Information

Fixture: South Korea vs. Thailand
Competition: 2026 FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, Second Round
Venue: Seoul World Cup Stadium
Date: Thursday 21st March 2024, 20:00 KST

South Korea's first match since their AFC Asian Cup semifinal loss to Jordan. Jurgen Klinsmann has gone with Korea U23 head coach Hwang Sun-hong placed in temporary charge. No fewer than 10 players who were part of the Asian Cup squad have been dropped and there are first call-ups for Joo Min-kyu who, at 33 years and 333 days, became the oldest player to receive a first call-up to the Korean national team, and promising Gwangju FC midfielder Jeong Ho-yeon.

With two games played, South Korea sit top of Group C with maximum points, eight goals scored and none conceded. A win in this first meeting with Thailand would mean at least a three-point cushion over third with three games to go and a small step towards qualification for the next round. 

Recent Form

South Korea head into Thursday's visit of Thailand on a run of one loss in five with two wins and two draws. However, one of those wins came via a penalty shootout - the 1-1 draw with Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup Round of 16 - and the other after extra time, the quarterfinal against Australia. 

Thailand made it to the Round of 16 of the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar but lost 2-1 to Uzbekistan. The defeat made it three matches without a win and just one win in five - a 2-0 victory over Kyrgyz Republic in the first group stage match.

South Korea have won their last five home World Cup qualifiers and their last defeat stretches back to June 2013, a 1-0 reverse to Iran at the Munsu Stadium in Ulsan.

South Korea's last loss at Seoul World Cup Stadium in a World Cup qualifier goes back to August 2005, losing 1-0 to Saudi Arabia. Thailand when away from home in World Cup qualifiers have just four wins in their last 20. They did, however, win their last away World Cup qualifier, beating Singapore 3-1 in November last year. 


South Korea and Thailand have only ever faced each other once before, a friendly in 2016 in Bangkok. On that occasion, Suk Hyun-jun scored the game's only goal in a 1-0 Korea win. Only three players from that squad are currently part of the current South Korea setup - Kim Young-gwon, Lee Jae-sung, and Kim Jin-su plus the injured Kim Seung-gyu.

Team News

It was announced last Friday that injury has forced Ulsan's Um Won-sang to withdraw from the squad and that Jeonbuk's Song Min-kyu has been called up to replace him. Kim Seung-gyu's ligament injury means that Jo Hyeon-woo is likely to start the two qualifiers against Thailand; Lee Chang-geun has been brought in and will likely be seen as third choice. Hwang Hee-chan is injured having picked up a hamstring problem with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Lee Ki-je's omission from the squad means that Kim Jin-su is likely to start at left back, while Kim Young-gwon and Kim Min-jae are expected to be Hwang Sun-hong's centre back pairing. Jung Seung-hyun was ahead of Kim Young-gwon during the Asian Cup but has been left out of the squad.

Much of the South Korea team picks itself with only a few areas that are perhaps up for grabs. If Hwang Sun-hong goes for a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, as he has preferred with the U23 team, then who partners Hwang In-beom in central midfield will be something to keep tabs on. Paik Seung-ho will be the most likely. At full back, the right back spot appears to be Seol Young-woo's to lose, while Kim Jin-su will be ahead of Lee Myung-jae on the left

Other questions will be whether Son Heung-min be deployed as a striker like he is for Tottenham, or will Hwang go for Cho Gue-sung and have Captain Son play from the left? 

Likewise, will Lee Kang-in start, and if he does will it be from wide or as a 10? Hwang Sun-hong deployed Lee in a number of positions during the Asian Games last year. Against Bahrain, Lee sat behind Cho Young-wook as a second striker, similarly against Kyrgyz Republic playing just off Bak Jae-yong before dropping into the number 10 position. Against China, Lee was a number 10, a second striker, and then 10 against Uzbekistan, then wide right against Japan in the final.

The Opposition


Thailand are ranked 101st in the world, moving up 12 spots, and 17th in Asia. The War Elephants are led by Japanese coach Masatada Ishii who has had a decorated career as a manager, winning two Thai League 1 titles with Buriram United, multiple domestic Thai cups, as well as a J1 League title and several domestic cup wins with Kashima Antlers. The 57-year-old has been in charge of Thailand since December 2023, overseeing five matches - winning just one, drawing two, and losing two.

During the Asian Cup, Masatada Ishii set his team up with a back four and either a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1. For the win against Kyrgyz Republic, Thailand played the full 90 in a 4-4-2 but switched to a 4-2-3-1 against Oman and Saudi Arabia and a 4-1-4-1 against Uzbekistan. A more defensive approach will be expected against South Korea this Thursday, particularly away from home and so a 4-1-4-1 will be most likely.

Thai football writer Gian Chansrichawla provides his insights

What are Thailand's expectations ahead of these two matches?

"That's a tough one. I think even on Korea's worst day Korea is comfortably superior, better than Thailand, but if we were to pick a time to play Korea, I think it has to be now given the situation with what happened with Klinsman and the fallout from that.

"So unlike normally, I think we actually might have a small chance this time in terms of what we need. I think Thailand would really like at least one point from these two games, because if we get at one point against Korea - most likely at home - and then a point in Beijing or a win in Beijing, then we're through - assuming that Korea beat China twice. So at least one point is the minimum expectation from the two games. If we can grab a win in one of those games, especially the home game, I think it's not entirely impossible. Unlikely still, but not entirely impossible."

The way these back-to-back fixtures work means it can be make or break for some teams. Similar to how the ACL group stage works. Will it be a case of trying not to lose this match? What can we expect tactically?

If any of your viewers saw any of our games in the Asian Cup, it will just be exactly that. I think Masatada Ishii spelled that out exactly. He said in an interview I think after the Saudi Arabia game, where he said, 'Yeah, we want to do well in the Asian Cup, but we want to make it to the World Cup,' and [that] we are basically testing our ability against these big teams, because we need to go and do it in the Asian Cup qualifier.  

"So I think it would be an identical situation to what we saw in the Asian Cup, which is basically a 4-4-2, a slightly modified 4-4-2. Defense first, we went through the entire Asian Cup group stage without conceding a single goal, which was really unexpected because we thought that our defense was our weak spot.

Basically, Ishii has created a system where it gets the best out of our defenders capabilities, and we counterattack very effectively, very quickly. We try to win the ball the middle of the pitch and quickly get it out to our dangerous players. But we're also comfortable in possession because that's what our team had been building towards before Ishii came in to try and be a possession-based side. This new approach of 4-4-2 with some pressing occasionally when we have the chance, but also against stronger teams just sitting back and waiting for counterattack opportunities, it's how you need to play against strong teams like South Korea.

"I could probably tell you the lineup pretty much. He doesn't change much when it matters. He did rotate the whole 11 against Saudi Arabia and got a draw still in the Asian Cup, which shows that we've got depth. But it's going to be the team that played against Uzbekistan with a couple of changes and it will be the same template we saw against Uzbekistan." 

Korea have found it difficult for years to break teams down that sit back and frustrate them. Can we expect Thailand to create two banks of four and try to pick Korea off on the counter?

"Yeah, I think they'll do that. I think they'll probably have pressing triggers on other defenders that are not Kim Min-jae, because they would have watched what Jordan did, I think. I think they would try and replicate that. I know that Ishii does often make very small changes to sort of counter what the opponents do. So for example, against Uzbekistan he noted that Uzbekistan created a lot of chances with diagonal balls. So we took off with an attacking winger, for a defensive winger. So he gets a two-v-one to prevent these diagonals from catching him out. So little things like that, I'm sure he's looking for some sort of small places to exploit in the Korean formation. I'd imagine the game plan would be mostly sit in two banks of four and counterattack, but I think you could see some pressing on some of the defenders. If there's a opportunity, sort of leap at them and win the ball back high, because that would help a lot."

Head Coach Masatada Ishii has had five games in charge, one win. What's the general feeling about him and his time in charge so far?

"He knows all the players very well. He coached Buriram and Samut Prakan City. He coached most of the national team players at some capacity at club level and then he simply knew what he had to do. So he came in, implemented the system. We lost 5-0 to Japan in our first game, but that was a test of how are we going to play? He carried that into all the Asian Cup games and because of the situation, changing the coach and the mood around the team, many people thought we were going to go home dead last in our group - that was a common opinion in Thailand. I was one of the few that actually, I think we can come out of it.

"We sort of succeeded in this group and we did without conceding a goal. After the performance and after how the players responded to the manager, he's gotten a new three-year contract since that tournament, which shows how highly he's rated because three-year contracts are not very common in Thai football. Everyone just looks really, really happy with him. That's the players, the fans, the administration of the FA, they all seem pretty pleased and I can see why. So he's in a very sort of strong position right now."  

What are the expectations in general in terms of qualification? There must be some feeling of optimism that Thailand can finish second?

"That is the hope and the way Ishii talks, he thinks it's gonna happen. He's pretty confident about it. I'm not that confident because we have to go to China and get a result, because we lost to China at home. But I felt in that game we were better than China. Both of their goals came from individual mistakes from our team and our goal came from creating good chances. So that makes me slightly more optimistic, but we shouldn't pin our hopes on winning away in China. We have to get something against Korea. I think when the draw came out, we thought, 'Okay, Korea is the free hit. Everyone's going to lose to Korea.'

"So we don't have to panic. But now that, frankly, Korea is a little bit of a messy situation, suddenly the door opens and if we get something that takes the pressure off China away which is, ultimately, the decisive game." 

Who should we be looking out for as Thailand's key players? Is there anyone missing from this squad through injury or otherwise?

"At the Asian Cup, we had both Chanathip (Songkrasin) and Teerasil (Dangda) missing. Chanathip is now back but I don't think he will start. I think he'll mostly come off the bench for the last 30 minutes, try and make an impact because he has in the same position as Supachok Sarachat who's currently at Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and has started, I think all three or two of the three games so far in the J.League and has been their key player. He's been very important for Sapporo's attack this season. He scored also a really wonderful goal against Uzbekistan in that game of the Asian Cup. So I think he's definitely the key player to watch out for. 

"In attack, there's also Supachai Chaided who has taken up the mantle as the main striker to replace Teerasil and he did very well in the Asian Cup as well. I think he'll probably start, and obviously Theerathon (Bunmathan) at left back, also a J.League veteran who is very important to our buildup; he's often the outlet, he plays on the left but he drifts inside, helps create chances, is often very important for getting the ball from our defense to our attack."

Listen to the full conversation on KLU Patreon here

KLU Patreon

K Leaguers to Watch

There are 11 K League players in the squad. Four of whom are likely to start, those being Jo Hyeon-woo, Seol Young-woo, Kim Young-gwon, and Kim Jin-su. Seol Young-woo's impressive form for club and country has meant that he is now his country's first-choice right back. If it's a 4-2-3-1 then the two full backs will be expected to provide a bit of width and get crosses into the box, especially if Thailand get men behind the ball and make it difficult for Korea to break them down. Kim Jin-su is second in K League 1 so far for total crosses with 12, while Seol Young-woo ranks eighth for crosses from the right flank, fifth among defenders.

If or when Joo Min-kyu comes off the bench, too, will be something to keep an eye on. Joo will be making his debut and with Hwang Sun-hong only in caretaker charge, it's unclear whether the Ulsan HD striker will be called up again. The powerful striker will be looking to make the most of his time in a Korea shirt but with Thailand likely to limit the space through the middle, Joo's presence and prowess in the box might be the best route to earning a third win from as many matches in Group C.

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