Reigning South Korean pro football MVP Lee Jae-sung will headline the men's national team for an upcoming regional tournament.
Lee, midfielder for K League Classic champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, was one of 24 players named to the national team for the East Asian Football Federation E-1 Football Championship in Tokyo. South Korea will face Japan, China and North Korea from Dec. 9 to 16.
The E-1 Football Championship isn't on the official FIFA international calendar, and European clubs, who will be in the middle of their seasons in December, aren't obliged to release their international players. That left head coach Shin Tae-yong to scramble for available players from South Korea and other parts of Asia.
Shin went with two players from the Chinese league and four from the Japanese circuit, while filling up the rest with domestic league players.
Without the services of Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min and Swansea City's Ki Sung-yueng, Lee will have to be the stabilizing force in midfield.
Lee will have a couple of wily veterans to rely on: Gangwon FC midfielder Lee Keun-ho, third in the MVP voting, and Yeom Ki-hun, playmaking winger for Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
A pair of homegrown strikers, Kim Shin-wook of Jeonbuk and Lee Jeong-hyeop of Busan IPark, will lead the attack, along with a 23-year-old national team rookie Jin Seong-uk.
In this file photo taken July 23, 2017, Lee Jae-sung of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors celebrates his goal against FC Seoul in their K League Classic contest at Seoul World Cup Stadium. (Yonhap)
Jeonbuk, which won its fifth K League title in 2017, has five players on the roster.
South Korea typically carry about a dozen players based in leagues outside Asia, and it likely won't change for next year's FIFA World Cup in Russia. The E-1 Football Championship is essentially the last chance for K League players to make an impression and earn World Cup consideration.
Shin said the door to the World Cup team is "100 percent open" for every player.
"Whether it's the players going through offseason training or in the midst of club seasons, the door is open to all of them," he said. "As long as they keep themselves in good form and they prove themselves on the field, they'll have their opportunities."
To aid the national team's preparations, the K League announced Tuesday it will release its players on Nov. 27, a week ahead of schedule.
The clubs didn't have to make their players available until a week before the start of the tournament, but they decided at a league board meeting to give the national team a few extra days to train.
The league had made similar concessions during the World Cup qualifying round earlier this year.
Formerly called the East Asian Cup, the tournament started in 2003, and this will be its seventh edition. South Korea won three of the first six, with China having won twice and Japan earning their only title in 2013.
South Korea will kick off the tournament against China on Dec. 9. They will take on North Korea on Dec. 12 and then Japan on Dec. 16. All matches will be held at Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo.
Japan are the highest-ranked team in the tournament at No.44, followed by China at No. 57, South Korea at No. 62 and North Korea at No. 132. Of the four, South Korea and Japan have qualified for next year's FIFA World Cup in Russia.
South Korea have a record of 40-23-14 (wins-draws-losses) against Japan all-time, 18-12-2 against China and 6-8-1 versus North Korea.
No matter how little seems to be at stake at regional competitions, any match against Japan is considered a must-win one for South Korea, and the importance wasn't lost on Shin.
"I'd be lying if I said there weren't any pressure on us to beat Japan, especially since both countries are preparing for the World Cup," Shin added. "Even if we play well in the rest of the tournament, we'll take a lot of flak if we don't play well against Japan."
Shin took over the team in July and coached South Korea through the final stretch of the Asian World Cup qualifying round. South Korea squeezed into the World Cup with two consecutive scoreless draws, and friendly losses to Russia and Morocco in October put Shin in serious hot water.
The Taeguk Warriors turned things around a bit by beating 13th-ranked Colombia 2-1 at home earlier this month, and they managed a 1-1 draw against Serbia in the follow-up.
"In those November friendlies, the players executed their game plan really well," Shin said. "Now that we're without some of the key players from those matches, such as Son Heung-min, we'll have to figure out who can step up and carry the team." (Yonhap)