Korea, Croatia bring in their best

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Korea, Croatia bring in their best


Park Chu-young, left, of Celta Vigo, and veteran K-League striker Lee Dong-gook celebrate a goal against Kuwait in a World Cup qualifier last February. They will lead the Taegeuk Warriors against Croatia in a Feb. 6 friendly. [NEWSIS]

Korea’s upcoming friendly match against Croatia in two weeks could prove the toughest test yet for the younger Taegeuk Warriors, who are looking beyond the qualifying stage and seeking a replay of the glory their seniors reached three World Cups ago in Brazil.

Croatia yesterday announced a 26-member roster, including a swath of threatening attackers playing in big European leagues, for the tune-up match Feb. 6 in London.

The Balkan country, 10th in the FIFA ranking, has three victories and a draw in European qualifying Group A with Belgium, Serbia, Macedonia and Scotland. It trails only Belgium, on goal differential.

Croatia’s head coach Igor ?timac, who was a member of the third-place team in the 1998 France World Cup, is not taking the tune-up lightly, fielding the country’s best players, including Luka Modric, a midfielder for Real Madrid, and Mario Mandzukic, a striker for Bayern Munich.

Other world-class attackers he summoned are Everton striker Nikita Jelavic, Fulham forward Mladen Petric and Ivica Olic, a forward for VfL Wolfsburg in Germany. Niko Kranjcar, a midfielder for Dynamo Kyiv, and Darijo Srna, a midfielder for Shakhtar Donetsk, also made the team.

That could be too daunting a team for Korea, which needs a boost in confidence after failing to win in two recent World Cup qualifiers.

The Taegeuk Warriors, who advanced to the semifinal at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, are 24 notches behind in the FIFA ranking, but have prevailed in five head-to-head matches against Croatia with two victories, two draws and one loss.

Coach Choi Kang-hee is looking to stay ahead with his own best team.

Choi summoned seven players from Europe on Monday, including Park Chu-young of Celta Vigo, Ki Sung-yueng of Swansea City and Son Heung-min of Hamburg. Lee Chung-yong of the Bolton Wanderers, Kim Bo-kyung of Cardiff City and Koo Ja-cheol of Augsburg also were called up.

Choi said that he chose to go for a win instead of experimenting ahead of four crucial remaining qualifiers.

Korea, seeking its eighth consecutive World Cup berth, will host Qatar on March 13, visit Lebanon on June 4 and then host Uzbekistan on June 11 and Iran on June 18. “Because we lost to Iran, we don’t have room for complacency,” Choi said, referring to a 1-0 loss in October after a 2-2 draw at Uzbekistan in September. “We have to find the best offense.”

Ji Dong-won, formerly a forward for Premier League club Sunderland who recently joined Koo in Augsburg, also is on the Choi squad for the first time in eight months.

The 21-year-old was on the bench for much of his time with Sunderland, but Choi said he expects Ji will be given sufficient time to find his form with his new team before the friendly match.

Veteran Lee Dong-gook, 33, of Jeonbuk Motors also joined the team, but Lee Keun-ho, the Asian MVP who led Ulsan Hyundai to the Asian Football Confederation Champions League title last year, was ruled out due to military training. Choi said, however, the 27-year-old midfielder still could be called up for the Qatar qualifier.

Defense has been a problem for the Choi squad in the previous qualifiers and veteran defender Lee Jung-soo, of Al-Sadd in Qatar, has been called up, along with other backline fixtures such as Kwak Tae-hwi of Al Shabab in Saudi Arabia, Jung In-whan of Incheon United, Hwang Seok-ho of Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Yun Suk-young of the Chunnam Dragons.

The Choi squad will leave for London on Jan. 30. The Croatia tune-up will be at Craven Cottage, on Feb. 6. The match will start at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 6, Korean Standard Time.

By Moon Gwang-lip, Park So-young [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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