CUIABA, Brazil ― As Korea heads into its first World Cup match, it has just one focus: defense.
The squad arrived in Cuiaba on Sunday morning from its Foz do Igaucu training camp, two days ahead of its premiere showdown at Arena Pantanal on Tuesday (7 a.m. Wednesday, Korean time) against Russia for the final opener in Brazil.
Come kickoff, the team will be entirely committed to supporting the defense.
Park Chu-young, Korea’s main striker, said before the training session on Sunday that he feels in even better condition than at the 2010 World Cup, and has one resolution: beating Russia. He aims to do his share of defending, even as the front man.
“We are in the final stage of making up for our weak points. At the end of each practice, I do extra shooting practice to get the feeling right,” said Park.
The key to a cohesive defense is communication, center back Kim Young-gwon noted last week at Foz do Iguacu, where the squad has been actively talking more about strategy to bring everyone onto the same page.
Korean players practice in Cuiaba, Brazil, on Monday, before their first match in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil. (Yonhap)
“We’re trying to talk to each other as much as we can, so we can solve our problems (with organization),” said Kim. “As defenders, we need to be in constant communication with our teammates in front and try to get everyone on the same page.”
Despite coach Hong Myung-bo being one of the most decorated defenders in Asian football history, his back line as coach has been a thorn in his side. Since inheriting a team that stumbled through qualifiers last year, he has struggled to establish cohesion.
Such problems were all too apparent in May’s send-off friendly against Tunisia, in which midfielder Zouhaier Dhaouadi burst through the defense to slot the ball home for the game’s only goal.
And Korea’s 4-0 defeat to Ghana in its final tune-up in Miami showed that the 10 or so days of intensive training in Florida had not been enough to patch up the defensive holes.
Korea faces an uphill battle to survive Group H. With Belgium expected to top the group, the second slot is a three-way battle between Russia, Algeria and South Korea.
“We are currently not thinking about the games against Algeria and Belgium. The game against Russia is the stepping stone to the Round of 16. We will devote all of our energy (to that),” said defender Lee Yong ahead of Sunday’s warmup, adding that the team had picked apart the faults laid bare in the past two defeats in preparation for the Russia match.
“Russia’s team is systematically strong. If we lose the ball, we have to intensify pressure on them. So, we should not make mistakes while passing,” he added.
In the two sides’ last showdown, a friendly on Nov. 19, Korean forward Kim Shin-wook scored an early opener, but Fyodor Smolov equalized and Dmitri Tasarov capitalized on a lapse in concentration in Korea’s defense to ensure the win. Neither Russian scorer made the World Cup squad.
The match is crucial for Russia, too. It is 12 years since its last World Cup, when it was eliminated in the group stage after winning one and losing two. Fans don’t expect the team to go all the way this year, but expect to reach the second round at least. That would be their best performance since 1990.
Their coach, Fabio Capello, returns to the World Cup with sour memories, having led England to just one win in 2010 before the team crashed out 4-0 to the Germans in the Round of 16, its heaviest-ever World Cup defeat. He will be looking to reestablish his reputation and build up a solid Russian squad before 2018, likely his final event before retirement.
“Definitely, our first target is to get out of the group. ... If we do not do it, then the rest of our aims are of no interest,” Capello said earlier. “The draw was in our favor and we have great expectations for the forthcoming event.”
Since leaving England for Russia in 2012, he has transformed the team’s leaky defense. Russia conceded just five goals in its 10 World Cup qualifiers.
Russia beat Slovakia and Morocco and drew with Norway in pretournament friendlies, but a question mark lingers over the recent loss of captain Roman Shirokov to an Achilles tendon injury.
To compensate for the Shirokov-shaped hole in the center, Capello has been focusing on maintaining control along the flanks.
On the other side, Hong has had far less time to shore up his defense, confirming the squad’s defensive roster just a day before leaving for Miami late last month. His choice of back four was still unclear, but is expected to be Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon in the center, with Lee Yong on the right and Yun Suk-young on the left.
Following its opener in Cuiaba, Korea will meet Algeria in Porto Alegre on June 22, while Russia heads to Rio de Janeiro to take on world No. 11 Belgium.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent
)Grace Cho in Seoul contributed to this article. ― Ed.