South Korea will try to book a ticket to the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil in style, as it readies to host continental rival Iran in an Asian qualification match here this week.
The kickoff will be 9 p.m. Tuesday at Munsu Football Stadium in Ulsan, about 410 kilometers southeast of Seoul. It will be the final World Cup qualifier for both countries.
South Korea enters the match as the leader of Group A with 14 points on four wins, two draws and one loss. Iran is in second at 13 points with four wins, one draw and two losses. Uzbekistan sits in third with 11 points.
There are two groups of five nations in the final qualification round in Asia, and only the top two countries from each group will directly qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The two third-place teams will meet in a playoff for the right to take on a South American opponent in an intercontinental playoff.
South Korea is in a prime position to qualify for its eighth consecutive World Cup. Even a draw against Iran will give South Korea an automatic spot in the quadrennial tournament. Even with a loss, South Korea will also most likely advance thanks to its superior goal difference.
Yet, South Korean head coach Choi Kang-hee and his players have frequently talked about their desire to advance with a win. Choi said South Korea will play "an aggressive game" and will look to shore up the midfield to dictate the pace of the match.
Iran is in a deeper hole. If Iran loses to South Korea and Uzbekistan defeats the underdog Qatar in their finales, Iran will finish third in the group. If Iran manages a draw and Uzbekistan wins by at least five goals, Iran will still fall to third place on goal difference.
In their previous meeting in October of last year in Tehran, Iran defeated South Korea 1-0. It remains South Korea's only loss in the final qualification round so far. Iran played most of the second half a man short after Masoud Shojaei was sent off on a hard foul on Oh Beom-seok.
Iran holds the edge in all-time meetings with 10 wins, nine losses and seven draws.
There will be no love lost between the rivals on Tuesday. Head coaches of the two teams have engaged in some trash talking since last week. After beating Uzbekistan 1-0 last Tuesday, South Korean coach Choi Kang-hee said he'd prefer to advance to the World Cup with Uzbekistan rather than with Iran.
Choi also said his players still remember some "poor treatment" that they received in Iran last fall, including late issuing of visas and getting assigned practice facilities with subpar pitch conditions. These memories prompted Choi to say, "I think we must give (Iran) pain."
Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese coach for Iran, quickly shot back, saying Choi's comments were "shameful," demanding the South Korean coach apologize to the Iranians.
In response, Choi accused Queiroz of trying to turn football into politics and said, "I'd just like to say Queiroz will be watching the World Cup next year on television at his home in Portugal."
Verbal jabs aside, South Korea will once again look to forward Son Heung-min to provide an offensive spark. The 20-year-old, who recently left Hamburger SV for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga league, made his first start in the final qualification round against Uzbekistan last week to mixed success.
He started as a striker alongside the towering Kim Shin-wook and had some moments of brilliance. Yet it was when Son was moved down to the wing in the second half that he showed more energy and creativity that made him a hotly pursued player among European clubs this summer.
On defense, South Koreans will have to contain midfielder Javad Nekounam. He scored the winner against South Korea last fall and also chipped in two goals in Iran's 4-0 win over Lebanon last week.
One of Iran's all-time greats with 131 caps at age 32, Nekounam also plays an integral role in keeping opponents at bay in midfield.
In the latest blow to its already shaky backline, South Korea may be without key defensive back and captain Kwak Tae-hwi on Tuesday. Kwak suffered a hamstring injury during the game against Uzbekistan and has sat out recent practice sessions. Kwak, who has started every match in the final qualification round, could be replaced by either Jung In-hwan or Kim Ki-hee, who have appeared in just six international matches combined. (Yonhap News)