With a new boss at the helm, South Korea will face Iran in a crucial match this week that may determine their World Cup fate.
The men's national football team, now led by head coach Shin Tae-yong, will host Iran at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul at 9 p.m. Thursday for their ninth match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Both teams are in Group A, where they are also paired with Uzbekistan, Syria, Qatar and China.
In Asia, the top two teams from Group A and B will directly advance to the World Cup in Russia, while two third-placed teams need to go through playoff rounds to clinch a spot at the top FIFA competition.
Regardless of their remaining two matches in the final round, Iran have already secured the top spot in Group A with 20 points from an undefeated record of six wins and two draws. On the other hand, South Korea are barely holding on to the last automatic qualification in second place with 13 points from four wins, one draw and three losses. They are just one point above third-place Uzbekistan, which have four wins and four losses.
South Korea`s national football team players train at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul, on Aug. 28, 2017, three days ahead of their World Cup qualifying match against Iran. (Yonhap)
The Taeguk Warriors, however, can clinch their ninth consecutive World Cup appearance should they beat Iran and Uzbekistan lose to China on Thursday. If not, South Korea's World Cup fate will all come down to their last qualifying match against Uzbekistan in Tashkent on Sept. 5.
History shows South Koreans are on the challengers' side as they have nine wins, seven draws and 13 losses against Iran. South Korea's last victory against Iran was in January 2011, when they prevailed 1-0 at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup quarterfinals. But since then, South Korea have lost all four contests against Iran by the score of 1-0.
Iran, ranked No. 24 in the latest FIFA rankings, the highest among the AFC members, have displayed strong performances throughout the final round. They are currently the only team in Asia that has yet to surrender a goal, while scoring eight goals in eight matches.
South Korea, ranked world No. 49, have scored 11 goals in eight matches, best among the teams in Group A, but have also conceded 10 goals, tied for the worst along with Qatar.
A relief to South Korean fans is the fact that the national team is on an 11-game winning streak at home. Since March 2015, South Korea haven't lost on home soil, although their opponents during that stretch can't exactly be considered strong teams.
South Korea`s national football team head coach Shin Tae-yong directs his players at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul, on Aug. 28, 2017, three days ahead of their World Cup qualifying match against Iran. (Yonhap)
South Korea are looking to have a fresh start with Shin and his new backroom staff, which includes former 2002 World Cup stars like Cha Du-ri and Kim Nam-il. They were appointed last month after Uli Stielike was sacked.
The match against Iran will be Shin's official coaching debut with the senior squad, although he previously managed South Korea in September 2014 as a caretaker in friendly matches against Venezuela and Uruguay before Stielike took control of the team.
Shin is familiar with the national team players, as he served as an assistant to Stielike. The 48-year-old, who previously managed South Korea's under-23 and under-20 squads, was on the bench when South Korea suffered a 1-0 loss in their World Cup qualifier in Tehran in October 2016.
Shin, a former AFC Champions League-winning coach with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2010, has selected 26 players for the upcoming World Cup qualifier, though he will need to cut three players for the match.
Sixteen players, who are mostly based in the domestic K League Classic, have been training at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul, since last Monday after getting approval from their respective clubs for early release. With the arrival of Europe-based players like Son Heung-min and Koo Ja-cheol, South Korea have been able to train with a full squad since Monday.
The new head coach has been keeping discipline of the team by selecting veterans who previously didn't get Stielike's nod. Among them are 38-year-old striker Lee Dong-gook, the all-time leading scorer in the K League, and 34-year-old midfielder Yeom Ki-hun, who has the highest assists in South Korean pro football.
Shin has been known for his attacking style of football, but for the match against Iran, he previously hinted at playing more defensive football since he can't risk losing the match. His side has been practicing the back four system during training sessions at the NFC, but Shin is also capable of using a back three.
It's still uncertain who will take starting spots under the new head coach, though national team regulars like Son and Koo are likely to be Shin's first choices. Team captain Kim Young-gwon, a center back who plays with Guangzhou Evergrande of China, is also expected to start.
There are, however, players who look doubtful to play against Iran due to injury. One is Swansea City anchorman Ki Sung-yueng, who is still recovering from a June knee surgery. FC Red Bull Salzburg forward Hwang Hee-chan also suffered a minor knee injury during his Austrian club's practice last week, and Shin said the 21-year-old's availability will be determined on matchday.
Iran`s national football team players train at Paju Stadium in Paju, north of Seoul, on Aug. 28, 2017, three days ahead of their World Cup qualifying match against South Korea. (Yonhap)
Iran selected 24 players, including Ehsan Hajsafi, who, along with Masoud Shojaei, was in trouble after they played against Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv in their Greek club Panionios' UEFA Europa League qualifying match. The Iranian government does not allow its sportsmen to compete against Israelis and does not recognize Israel as a country.
There were reports that Iran may ban both Shojaei and Hajsafi from the national team, but following fans' outcry and FIFA's plan to investigate the matter, the Iranian Football Federation apparently stepped back and allowed head coach Carlos Queiroz to take one of the two players.
Queiroz, who previously served as an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, has been leading Iran since 2011 and led Team Melli at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Under the Portuguese's charge, Iran have yet to lose to South Korea.
Though his side has already affirmed its presence in the 2018 FIFA World Cup and includes several rookie members on the squad, Queiroz said Iran will aim to maintain their undefeated and clean sheet streak in the final round, hinting that they will take the match seriously.
Iran's star striker Sardar Azmoun, who is with Russian outfit Rubin Kazan, will not play against South Korea due to yellow card accumulation in previous matches, but his void will be filled by Reza Ghoochannejhad. The Heerenveen striker scored the winning goal against South Korea in their 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Ulsan in 2013. (Yonhap)