Europe-based footballers are coach’s focus

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Europe-based footballers are coach’s focus

Coach Choi Kang-hee’s biggest decision will be how to utilize two Europe-based talents, Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng, when he leads the desperate Taegeuk Warriors in a World Cup qualifier against Qatar tomorrow.

Son, 20, has scored nine goals in 23 appearances this season, the second most prolific player for his German club Hamburg, but has not had similar success with the Taegeuk Warriors. He has scored only once since he first joined the national team in 2010.

Choi pit national team players against each another in a two-team short practice game on Friday, and Son failed to perform well when he was paired with national team fixtures. He managed to score when he was moved to the other team, comprised mostly of nonstarters, in the second half.

In the first half of the practice game held in Goyang, Gyeonggi, Son assumed a left-wing position with Lee Chung-yong of the Bolton Wanderers taking the right wing. In the second half, he was shifted to the opposing team, pairing with Kim Shin-wook of Ulsan Hyundai. Son scored on Kim’s pass.

Ki, 24, of Swansea City in the English Premier League, has been a regular in Choi’s squad, but his role as an offensive midfielder could be weakened due to the team’s defense problems. Korea, which allowed nine goals in its four most recent matches, will have to rely on the fast recovery of Kwak Tae-hwi, a 31-year-old veteran defender who sustained a thigh injury in a recent game with his club Al Shabab.

Jung In-hwan of Jeonbuk Motors, another center back in Choi’s squad, has little experience with the team.

Both Kwak and Jung made appearances in Friday’s game.

“I am deciding whether to keep Ki in his usual place while backing him up with a smart, competitive defensive midfielder or drag him down to improve the stability of our defense,” Choi said.

Lee Yong-soo, a KBS football commentator, said that Ki’s role will change depending on the flow of the Qatar game.

“Ki could be a hidden card for the national team in the second half,” Lee noted.

Choi tested various attack formations in Friday’s game. Kim Shin-wook and Lee Keun-ho, who had been an Ulsan Hyundai striker duo until last year, assumed the forefront. Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Motors was also put in as a top striker with Han Kook-young of Shonan Bellmare and Ji Dong-won of Augsburg covering him in the wings.

Ki was put in the game as a central midfielder along with Koo Ja-cheol of Augsburg.

“Finding the best combination of attackers and midfielders was the goal of this practice game,” Choi said. “For the remaining time, I will think about how to break into the tight defense of our opponents. It is important that our offense score a goal first as quickly as possible.”

Korea is eager to win after it blew a once comfortable lead in the Asian qualifying Group A with two straight winless games. Korea lost to a 10-man Iran 1-0 in October after a 2-2 draw against Uzbekistan in September. Its winless streak stands at four games including tune-up matches - Korea lost to Australia 2-1 in November and was routed 4-0 by Croatia in Feburary.

With seven points from four games, Korea is now runner-up, a point behind Uzbekistan although it played one game less than the other four Group A teams. Iran and Qatar are trailing Korea only on goal difference.

Three of the four remaining matches for Korea in its quest to clinch a berth to the World Cup are at home, including against Qatar tomorrow, Uzbekistan on June 11 and Iran on June 18. The Lebanon match on June 4 will be in Beirut.

Korea is seeking an eighth consecutive ticket to the World Cup. It advanced to the 2010 World Cup on 16 points total from four wins and four draws in the final qualifying round.
By Moon Gwang-lip, Son Ae-sung [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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