Paulo Bento, head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, directs his players during practice at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
With South Korea set to resume their World Cup qualifying campaign on home soil on the weekend, national team head coach Paulo Bento is metaphorically putting on his noise-canceling headphones.
Bento finds himself in the hot seat after South Korea dropped a friendly match to rivals Japan 3-0 in March, a result that led to growing calls for the Portuguese coach's dismissal.
Bento hasn't gone anywhere, and he now has a chance to redeem himself and put South Korea back on track. South Korea will face Turkmenistan on Saturday in Group H action in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The kickoff is at 8 p.m. at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, just northwest of Seoul.
South Korea will later play Sri Lanka and Lebanon, two more beatable opponents. Asked Friday if he considered these matches an opportunity to change the narrative surrounding the team, Bento said he is not looking past Saturday's match.
"I am putting all my energy into trying to win tomorrow's match and get three points," Bento said in his online prematch press conference. "I've been trying to provide our players the best information possible, and I haven't had time to think about other things. I am concentrating solely on tomorrow's match."
As for criticism of the team, Bento said, "I respect the fact that people have different opinions about the national team, whether they're right or wrong."
The second round action had been on hold since November 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. To reduce traveling and minimize the risk of infection, South Korea will be the centralized host for all remaining Group H matches.
South Korea are currently leading Group H with seven points from two wins and a draw. North Korea have withdrawn from the tournament and all of their previous matches have been nullified. Lebanon also have seven points after three contests but trail South Korea in goal differential, plus-10 to plus-4.
South Korea have scored 10 goals without giving up any.
From the second round, the eight group winners and four-best runners-up will reach the third round.
South Korea are vying for their 10th consecutive World Cup appearance.
South Korea beat Turkmenistan 2-0 in their previous meeting in September 2019. South Korea predictably dominated ball possession but had trouble finding daylight through a crowd of opposing defenders.
South Korea will likely face a similarly tight defense Saturday, and Bento said his players will be ready.
"For every match we play, we have multiple plans of attack," Bento said. "If we play within our system and follow our basic structure, I think we can break down their defense."
Earlier Friday, Turkmenistan coach Yazguly Hojageldyyew said he was particularly wary of South Korean captain Son Heung-min.
"Many South Korean players are based in Europe," the coach noted. "It will not be an easy match for us."
When FIFA decided to wipe out all North Korean matches from Group H, it took away three points off the board for Turkmenistan, which beat North Korea 3-1 in November 2019.
Turkmenistan dropped from first to third in the group as a result.
"It's a shame that we no longer have those three points from our victory," the coach admitted. "But it won't have a huge impact on tomorrow's match." (Yonhap)