South Korea can take a huge step toward the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup this evening at Suwon World Cup Stadium when it faces United Arab Emirates.
After two games in Group B, the host sits on top with four points after a 6-0 win at home to Lebanon and 1-1 tie in Kuwait. With the top two progressing to the next stage, a win against UAE, who has lost both games so far, will put Cho Kwang-rae’s men in a very strong position.
Cho will be looking to captain Park Chu-young to get the goals. The new Arsenal striker may be struggling to get playing time for the English Premier League club but he is in the form of his life for his country with six goals in the last three games. The former FC Seoul star, 26, scored three against Lebanon, one in Kuwait and then both goals in an entertaining 2-2 tie with Poland last Friday.
It was a good second-half attacking performance by Korea against a committed Polish team preparing to co-host the 2012 European Championships, but once again, there were concerns about what was going on at the opposite end of the field. The White Eagles took the lead after 30 minutes and then for a while after, was finding ways through the home defense like gochujang through bibimbap.
The introduction of Seo Jung-jin after the break made a difference as the Jeonbuk Motors midfielder created both goals for Park and should have done enough to start this evening. The striker still had work to do on both occasions but finished well past Arsenal team-mate, Lukasz Fabianski in the Polish goal. Only a late defensive mistake from substitute Cho Byung-kuk gifted the visitor a tie.
Cho was looking at the positives. “It was a very good game and I am satisfied, especially with the second half,” he said after the game.
“We tried to play at a fast tempo and played some good soccer. The players all showed what they can do.”
The headlines, as is usually the case in the beautiful game, belonged to the goal-scorer and Park was besieged by reporters as he emerged from the locker room deep in the bowels of the 66,000 capacity arena on the banks of the Han River.
“It’s all about preparing well and moving up a level ahead of the UAE game,” said Park after the match.
“That is what is important and we are doing all we can to ensure that we make it to the next stage of qualification as smoothly as possible. Now we have to stay focused on the next match.”
The last time the UAE came to Korea was almost exactly two years ago in the final round of qualification for the 2010 World Cup. It was a 4-1 win for the host at a sold-out Seoul World Cup Stadium.
The UAE arrives in East Asia in some turmoil. In the group, Korea was always the favorite but it was expected that the team, with one World Cup (1990) appearance under its belt, would battle it out with Kuwait for the second spot. A loss in Suwon will end those hopes and they are already looking faint. In the first game, UAE lost at home, 3-2 to Kuwait. Then came a disappointing 3-1 loss in Beirut.
That cost Srecko Katanec his job as coach. Abdulla Masfar has been drafted in for the rest of the third stage. His first match was a 2-0 friendly defeat in China on Friday.
“We took time to find our form in today’s game, but after all, the result wasn’t very important,” said Masfar.
“We called some young players for the qualifying game on Tuesday and hope we can achieve a good result then.”
The team is still coping with the death of one of its young stars, Theyab Awana. The winger, just starting out in his international career, was killed in a car crash last month at the age of 21.
Winning in Suwon would be something of a tribute to the player, who caused a internet sensation earlier in the year by scoring a penalty kick with a back heel, but on present form, it looks to be beyond UAE.
For Korea, it is all about getting three points in the bank and moving a step closer to the final round. The Taeguk Warriors should be able to do so, but know they need to move up a gear when the real tests begin.
By John Duerden, Contributing writer