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S. Korea seeking redemption as World Cup qualifying campaign resumes

Members of the South Korean men's national football team train at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
Members of the South Korean men's national football team train at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Monday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
After a pandemic-induced hiatus of more than a year, South Korea will resume their bid for a 10th consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance on the weekend on home soil.

The boys in red will also try to redeem themselves after a humiliating loss to rivals Japan in spring.

The second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 World Cup has been on hold since November 2019. South Korea and the rest of Group H were scheduled to return to action in March 2020, but all of their matches scheduled for that year were wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With South Korea serving as the centralized venue -- with the goal of minimizing traveling and reducing COVID-19 risks -- teams will finally take the field this month, with the exception of North Korea.

North Korea pulled out of the competition last month, citing COVID-19 concerns, and all of their previous group matches have been nullified. That moved South Korea from second place to first place in Group H ahead of their match against Turkmenistan at 8 p.m. Saturday.

South Korea will next play Sri Lanka at 8 p.m next Wednesday and then close out the second round against Lebanon at 3 p.m. on June 13. All matches will take place at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul.

South Korea's last international match was a 3-0 loss to Japan in March, a result that could have been even more lopsided. Though South Korea were missing key internationals such as Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, frustrated fans didn't let head coach Paulo Bento use that as a crutch and let him off the hook so easily. His lack of tactical acumen and flexibility came under fire, and the Portuguese boss, the longest-serving head coach in the history of the men's national team here, will need convincing victories this month to assuage the fan base, if only so temporarily.

And make no mistake: these are all extremely winnable matches. Entering the weekend, South Korea are in 39th in the FIFA rankings, the highest in Group H. Lebanon are next at 93rd, followed by Turkmenistan at 130th and Sri Lanka at 204th.

Aside from an 8-0 drubbing of Sri Lanka in October 2019, South Korea haven't dominated the competition as they should have in the second round. They eked out a 2-0 win over Turkmenistan and were held to a scoreless draw by Lebanon in Beirut -- a result that gave Bento detractors ammunition.

And because South Korea will be heavily favored in all three matches, they will be under that much more pressure to deliver wins and do so in front of home fans.

They will have Son available on offense, along with his sidekick Hwang Ui-jo, who enjoyed a successful season in France with FC Girondins de Bordeaux.

A 19-year-old forward, Jung Sang-bin, has been called up to the senior national team for the first time, thanks to his breakout campaign with Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the K League 1. The defense corps features centerback Kim Min-jae, who is being linked to Juventus once his current deal with Beijing Guoan expires at the end of this year.

The eight group winners and the four-best runners-up will move on to the third round. South Korea have played in every World Cup since 1986. (Yonhap)
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