South Korean players celebrate their 2-1 victory over Syria in the teams' Group A match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, last Thursday. (Yonhap)
Regardless of what their head coach says, South Korean players should know this will not be just another match.
South Korea will face Iran in their first away match of the final Asian qualification round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday. The kickoff at Azadi Stadium in Tehran is 5 p.m. (local time), or 10:30 p.m. in Seoul.
At No. 22, Iran are the highest-ranked team from Asia, 14 spots above South Korea. Iran are also leading Group A of the ongoing phase with three straight wins, having scored five goals and given up none.
South Korea are in second place with seven points from two wins and a draw. This may sound like an oxymoron, but the Taeguk Warriors are undefeated and underachieving at the same time.
They've managed only three goals combined against three major underdogs, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, while the defense has been fortunate to have conceded just one goal so far.
South Korea will now try to end their winless drought in Tehran, where they've posted two draws and five losses.
Following an utterly uninspiring 2-1 win over Syria on Thursday, South Korea coach Paulo Bento fielded questions about the Iran match. Perhaps in an attempt to ease the burden on his players, Bento said: "The game that we're going to play on Tuesday isn't more important than the games we've played. It's not a decisive game. It's just one more game."
But Bento conceded it will be a different match than the previous three for South Korea, because of Iranians' physicality, international experience and strong technical skills.
"It'll be a tough game and a very good challenge for us," he added. "I am sure it will be a tough game for them as well."
South Korea have not yet had to deal with the kind of firepower that Iran will surely bring. Sardar Azmoun of Zenit Saint Petersburg, Alireza Jahanbakhsh of Feyenoord and Mehdi Taremi of FC Porto will all command particular attention from defenders.
South Korea will walk into a hostile stadium for the first time this round, after playing three matches at empty stadiums at home, with COVID-19 restrictions keeping fans out of all sporting events in the capital region.
The health of key players remains a concern. Captain Son Heung-min, who netted the 89th-minute winner against Syria, went down and grabbed his right calf in obvious pain late in the contest. Son later said he was feeling fine, and he hadn't suffered any injury. But it's also the same leg that he'd hurt during his previous international duty in September. After playing the full 90 minutes against Iraq, Son was sidelined for the Lebanon match. He also missed some time with Tottenham Hotspur after rejoining the Premier League club.
Bento has been defiant and testy in the face of criticism that he doesn't properly manage the workload of his star players, especially those who have to make long trips from Europe to Korea or other parts of Asia.
South Korea should have been able to handle Syria without needing Son for the entire match. But with South Korea nursing a 1-0 lead late into he second half, Bento had no choice but to keep Son in the game. He was validated when Son scored the tiebreaking goal.
And now Bento absolutely can't afford to bench Son. Given the way South Korea have played of late, they'd be barely competitive against Iran without Son in the lineup. Bento will need all of his top dogs.
Plus, he isn't going to Tehran trying to hold Iran to a draw and take one point.
"A draw is just how the game starts. We should play and fight to reach three points," Bento said. "We're going to play to win the match. That's our goal."
Kim Min-jae, the starting center back for Bento, said the mental preparation will be as important as the physical one.
"We defenders have to bear down and try not to give up any goal. More than anyone, I would love to finish every match with a zero on the board for the other team," Kim said. "We'll get together to analyze (Iran) and come up with a game plan that will help us get a clean sheet." (Yonhap)