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Loaded with talent, S. Korea set to kick off Asian Cup title bid vs Bahrain

By Yonhap

Published : Jan. 14, 2024 - 09:07

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From left: Lee Soon-min, Son Heung-min, Park Yong-woo, Song Bum-keun and Jo Hyeon-woo of the South Korean men's national football team train at Al Egla Training Site in Doha on Jan. 11, in preparation for the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. (Yonhap) From left: Lee Soon-min, Son Heung-min, Park Yong-woo, Song Bum-keun and Jo Hyeon-woo of the South Korean men's national football team train at Al Egla Training Site in Doha on Jan. 11, in preparation for the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. (Yonhap)

South Korea's quest to quench its 64-year title thirst at the top Asian men's football tournament will begin Monday against Bahrain, a team they have beaten 11 times out of 16 meetings so far.

Loaded with Europe-based stars, South Korea will play their first Group E match of the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Al Rayyan, just west of Doha.

South Korea won the first two editions of the top AFC men's tournament, in 1956 and 1960, but have been shut out of titles since. They have had four runner-up finishes over the past six decades, most recently in 2015 in Australia.

Many observers feel this will be the year that the drought will finally end, as this year's team is regarded as one of the most-talented squads, with key players all peaking at the right time.

Coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, South Korea are the highest-ranked team in Group E at No. 23 in the current FIFA rankings, while Bahrain check in at No. 86.

On paper, South Korea should have little trouble getting past Bahrain. The question should not be about whether South Korea will win but about by how many goals they will beat Bahrain.

Tottenham Hotspur captain Son Heung-min also wears the armband for the national team. He scored his Spurs-leading 12th goal of the season on New Year's Eve, his final Premier League match before joining the national team. Son was tied for third in the Golden Boot race when he temporarily left the club.

Fellow national team member, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, was alone in sixth place in goals with a career-high 10.

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) midfielder Lee Kang-in was the last to join South Korea's training camp in Abu Dhabi, and he did so after opening the scoring in PSG's 2-0 victory over Toulouse in the French Super Cup final on Jan. 3.

With the talented trio leading the way on offense, Bayern Munich center back Kim Min-jae will help lock things down on defense. Kim has been his usual, sturdy self in the back for the German giants in his first Bundesliga season. Kim helped Napoli to their first Italian Serie A title in 33 years last spring.

Other national team mainstays who ply their trade in Europe include Crvena zvezda midfielder Hwang In-beom, Mainz 05 midfielder Lee Jae-sung and FC Midtjylland forward Cho Gue-sung. A pair of 24-year-olds, VfB Stuttgart forward Jeong Woo-yeong and KAA Gent midfielder Hong Hyun-seok, have been seeing some action lately too.

From the domestic side, Ulsan HD FC defender Kim Young-gwon, the 2023 K League 1 most valuable player, and his Ulsan teammate Jung Seung-hyun could be taking turns seeing action next to Kim Min-jae in the middle of the back-four line.

South Korea have 11 wins, four draws and one loss all time against Bahrain, though their last meeting came five years ago in the round of 16 of the 2019 Asian Cup -- far enough back in time that many of those South Korean players didn't make the team for this year's tournament.

But both of the goal scorers in South Korea's 2-1 victory then are back this time: Hwang of Wolverhampton and Kim Jin-su of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. (Yonhap)