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Korea takes step toward Brazil

You may be thinking that the last World Cup has just finished. After all, it is only 14 months since Luis Suarez scored a fine goal for Uruguay to end South Korean hopes in the second round but despite the defeat all were satisfied as reaching the last 16 was the Taeguk Warriors’ best ever performance on foreign soil.

Tonight the team takes its first step on the road to Brazil 2014 in the city of Goyang where Lebanon provides the opposition.

The long-term objective is qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting tournament. The medium-term objective is to progress past the third round of qualification. As one of Asia’s best teams, Korea sat out the first two phases and joins the fray at the penultimate stage. It is also the group stage.

Twenty teams from the giant continent have been split into five groups of four. Korea’s group consists of Lebanon, UAE and Tuesday’s opponent Kuwait. Korea just needs to finish in the top two and negotiating past the West Asian challengers shouldn’t prove to be too difficult a task.

The immediate objective is to defeat Lebanon tonight. Coach Cho Kwang-rae will be keen not to make any mistakes against what is probably the weakest team in the group. Anything less than a win, and a fairly comfortable one at that, would have the Seoul soccer media up in arms. 
Korea head coach Cho Kwang-rae aims to rebound from a 3-0 defeat to Japan last month. (Yonhap News)
Korea head coach Cho Kwang-rae aims to rebound from a 3-0 defeat to Japan last month. (Yonhap News)

A good performance and a few goals would help the fans, maybe not forgive, but forget the last match that the team played which ended in a 3-0 defeat in Japan on August 10. Cho returned home after the match promising that fans will never see a repeat of the “Sapporo Disaster.” If that defeat was described as a disaster, there is not much room to maneuver in adjective terms if things go awry in Goyang. But, rest assured, the adjectives would be found.

Cho is also without the injured Lee Chung-yong, who plays for Bolton Wanderers of the English Premier League, and VfL Wolfsburg midfielder Koo Ja-cheol. And last weekend teenage star striker Son Heung-min, with a preseason tally of 17 goals in nine games, was ruled out after injuring himself in action for Hamburg. Nobody needs reminding that Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung has retired from the international game to focus on playing for the English champion.

Another objective, though it is difficult to say whether it is possible in the short or medium-term, is to help fans and media forget Park. The Japan loss prompted calls for his return from retirement, something likely to happen every time Korea loses. The best method is not to lose.

“Park’s absence is a great loss in terms of skill, but the more pressing concern is that we are struggling to find a replacement for him in terms of team leadership,” said Cho.

He will be looking to Park Chu-young who earlier this week made a surprise move to English powerhouse Arsenal. It has given the whole of Korean soccer a boost though it has taken some attention away from the national team.

The captain usually plays as the main striker but spent some time in training on the left wing with Sunderland’s Ji Dong-won in the middle. It remains to be seen how the team lines up but Park will be eager to show Arsenal fans what he can do and Cho has promised fast attacking soccer to take advantage of what he sees as weaknesses in the Lebanese defense.

Lebanon knows that the task is a tough one. Earlier this week I had the chance to talk to Lebanon coach Theo Bucker.

“I am not an expert on the Korean team,” said the German who is married to a Lebanese woman. “Of course, we remember Hiddink and we know they have good players but they also have two retirements and one broken leg. But this is not a history test, it is a football game. You have been a good team yesterday but so what? The game is today or tomorrow. We don’t start 1-0 to Korea because they go to the World Cup every time.”

Bucker was impressed that the Korean captain had joined Arsenal.

“Korea’s European players give them a huge advantage. We are talking about technique, tactics and the experience and these are things that our players don’t have that. The big difference is endurance and power. In Europe those players have it ― our players don’t.”

Cho is not taking anything for granted.

“We have had more time together on the training pitch compared to the Japan game,” he said. “We are have been training well and the players have responded well. There is a long way to go but it is important to get a good start.”

An obvious point but correct nonetheless. There are 34 months before the festival gets underway in Brazil and there are sure to be a few twists and turns on the road to South America but tonight should be straight forward.

By John Duerden, Contributing writer