Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min was among 26 players named to the men's national team on Monday for the two remaining qualifying matches for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. South Korea will host Iran in Seoul on Aug. 31 and travel to Tashkent to face Uzbekistan on Sept. 5.
These will be the first official matches for head coach Shin Tae-yong, who replaced Uli Stielike last month.
|In this file photo provided by Tottenham Hotspur football club on Aug. 3, 2017, South Korean winger Son Heung-min trains prior to the English Premier League season. (Yonhap)|
Son's status for the two contests had been in doubt after he suffered a fractured forearm in a World Cup qualifier against Qatar in June. He was expected to miss between eight and 12 weeks. But much to the delight and relief of Shin and his staff, Son made his Premier League season debut with the Spurs on Sunday against Newcastle United, playing about 30 minutes off the bench.
Shin previously said he would select Son regardless of his health, because his presence alone can have a positive impact on the squad.
Son has netted 17 goals in 55 matches for South Korea.
At a press conference announcing the roster, Shin said he was impressed with Son's performance in his return.
"He looked a lot better than I'd expected, though he still seemed a bit careful in physical battles," the coach said. "I wasn't sure if he would even be on the bench for the match. If he gets a couple more matches under his belt, then I am sure he'll be even better."
Ki Sung-yueng, a Swansea City midfielder on the mend with a knee injury, also made the team.
Elsewhere, Shin went with a couple of seasoned veterans on offense.
|South Korea men's football head coach Shin Tae-yong speaks at a press confeence announcing the national team roster for the World Cup qualifying matches at the Korea Football Association headquarters in Seoul on Aug. 14, 2017. (Yonhap)|
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors striker Lee Dong-gook has been named to the national team for the first time since October 2014. If he takes the field against Iran, Lee, at 38 years and 124 days, will be the second-oldest player to appear in an international match for South Korea.
Lee, who has won 103 caps for South Korea, is the career scoring leader in the first-division K League Classic with 196 goals.
Yeom Ki-hun, one of the K League Classic's top playmakers for the Suwon Samsung Bluewings, is among a dozen midfielders on Shin's roster. The 34-year-old has 51 caps, but his last national team appearance came in May 2015.
Shin said Ki has made a rapid progress from his offseason knee surgery and may actually be able to play. As for Lee and Yeom, the two oldest players on the team, Shin said he didn't pick them just for their veteran presence.
"I felt they'd been among the best players in the K League Classic, and they can lead by example," Shin said. "They've been playing as hard as anyone in the league. If young guys on the national team see just how much work these older players put in, they'll all follow suit."
Shin also named two international rookies: Tianjin Quanjian FC midfielder Kwon Kyung-won and Jeonbuk defender Kim Min-jae.
At 20, Kim is the youngest member of the current team.
Shin said both young guns will get long looks during training camp and said Kim in particular has been "one of the hottest defensive backs" in the K League Classic.
South Korea are seeking their ninth consecutive World Cup appearance next year but are just holding on to the last automatic berth in Group A of the final Asian qualifying round.
|In this file photo, taken on Aug. 6, 2017, Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (R) battles Ulsan Hyundai goalkeeper Jo Su-huk in their K League Classic match at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province. (Yonhap)|
Iran have already clinched a spot in Group A with 20 points. South Korea is in second place with 13 points, only one above Uzbekistan with two to play.
South Korea can book a spot if they beat Iran and if Uzbekistan lose to China on Aug. 31. Things may not transpire in South Korea's favor, though, since China are the worst team in Group A and lost to Uzbekistan 2-0 in October, and South Korea have dropped four straight against Iran dating back to 2012.
South Korea's fate will most likely be determined in the final qualifier against Uzbekistan on Sept. 5.
Shin admitted he is "quite worried" about the remaining two matches, but he hasn't lost his confidence.
"It'll only take a few tweaks for us to beat Iran," the coach said. "I'll work together with the rest of my coaching staff to prepare for these matches with confidence."
Third-place teams from Groups A and B will meet in a home-and-away series in October. The winner will move on to another two-legged playoff against the fourth seed from the final round in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football qualifiers. The winning team from that showdown will qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (Yonhap)