A good start to World Cup bid, but much work is needed

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A good start to World Cup bid, but much work is needed

On Lunar New Year’s Day, South Koreans across the country dropped their spoons into their rice cake soup when they saw how the national soccer squad beat Kuwait 2-0.
For a change, we saw our squad dominate the midfield, supplying the ball at will to our strikers, who moved around, creating space and chances. This was not the same team that we saw lose 0-1 to Egypt last week. “I think that the second team played last week and the first team tonight,” Slobodan Pavkovic, Kuwait’s skipper, said after the game.
The defense didn’t make any mistakes. They couldn’t even if they wanted to ― Kuwait hardly tested their skills as it rarely crossed the halfway line. That does not mean that it was flawless. I still don’t see anyone who can anchor the defense and guide it. For now, Yoo Sang-chul is slated as the successor to Hong Myeong-bo, who led the defense at the 2002 World Cup.
Yoo didn’t play on Wednesday, but he will be leading South Korea’s defense in the games to come. Yoo is 34, and he is not getting any younger. He can be effective when the midfield is dominated by South Korea and the defense only occasionally needs to prove its worth. He will make up for his lack of stamina with experience, as he can anticipate an opponent’s movement most of the time and position himself at the right spot. Nevertheless, once in the World Cup the defense will be tested in a much different way. Even before the World Cup, in the qualifying rounds against Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, the defense won’t have it as easy as it did on Wednesday.
To depend on one person at this stage is too much of a gamble. Jo Bonfrere needs to figure out who can lead the defense, or at least step in when Yoo is hurt or unable to play. As things stand, it’s just a matter of time for the weakness to be exposed and exploited by an opponent.
On the rare occasions when Kuwait had a chance to venture near the South Korean goal, the three-back defense line was slow in positioning itself in the right area, while the cover play by the three defenders on man-to-man marking didn’t run smoothly. With faster opponents who can break through more than Kuwait did, this area of concern needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
On Wednesday, we also caught a glimpse of North Korea’s national squad. There was plenty of mental toughness and stamina, but a lack of experience on the international stage was undeniable. The most dangerous time of any soccer game is the first five minutes and last five minutes. The North learned that lesson well enough on Wednesday, as both goals that Japan scored came exactly in those time spans.
North Korea’s only international exposure worth mentioning comes from An Yong-hak and Ri Han-jae, both ethnic Koreans who play in the Japanese professional soccer league. Lack of information on its playing style has carried North Korea only this far.
If it hopes to have any success on the international stage it needs to play on a regular basis against international opponents. After it has done that, talking about the World Cup would be much more realistic. As it is, the team is one World Cup away from even being a serious contender to play in one.

by Brian Lee
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