Son Heung-min to start versus Uzbekistan

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Son Heung-min to start versus Uzbekistan

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Son Heung-min, second from left in the front row, practices with other members of the Korean national football team at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, yesterday. Son was picked to start against Uzbekistan in a crucial World Cup qualifier at Seoul World Cup Stadium tonight. [NEWSIS]


Choi Kang-hee picked Son Heung-min as his starter for the first time as Korea takes on Uzbekistan in what could be Choi’s most crucial match at the helm of the national team.

The 20-year-old Hamburg striker accompanied the 54-year-old coach to a press conference in Seoul yesterday, ahead of tonight’s 8 p.m. match at World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong.

Korea must win the Uzbek match and hope Iran loses the other Group A match of the day to be able to secure its eighth straight berth in the World Cup regardless of the remaining match against Iran. Korea is ahead of Uzbekistan only on goal difference. Iran, which will host the already-eliminated Lebanon in Teheran early tomorrow morning Korean time, is trailing a point behind.

Only two teams from the group will get an automatic berth to the 2014 Brazil World Cup.

Choi denied that he made the decision to start Son under pressure. The coach was criticized heavily for using his longtime pupil, Lee Dong-gook, over the emerging star Son in a 1-1 draw with Lebanon a week earlier.

Choi, who called up Son in a friendly match against Croatia in February, said that he had planned to use him long before.

“If we had a strong game against Lebanon, I thought tomorrow’s match will be less of a burden for him,” Choi said. “But, [the Lebanon match] did not go as I thought. Rather, he now has to start under pressure.

“But, I think he will be able to grow through a big match. He could shake off difficult memories with the national team. He made a strong impact against Qatar, so I think he could play a good match in a home match.”

Son, who ended his goal drought in a Taegeuk uniform with a last-minute winner in a 2-1 victory against Qatar in March, said he will try to make his presence felt.

Son has assumed a leading position with his Bundesliga club, along with Artjoms Rudnevs. He scored the last three goals of the season as a sole striker. He scored 12 goals this season.

“I haven’t made a good result with the national team, but there is no use regretting it,” Son said. “I will try to help the team on the ground.”

Korea leads the series against Uzbekistan with seven victories against a loss and two draws since 1994. The last matchup between the two teams ended in a 2-2 draw in Tashkent last September.

But, armed with a few of the strongest players in Asia, Uzbekistan is seeking its first-ever World Cup entry. In particular, those who have experience with Korean football will likely pose a threat to Choi’s squad.

Server Djeparov, 30, played for the Seongnam Chunma in his third year in the K-League. The two-time Asian Player of the Year scored 20 goals in 91 international matches, including a tune-up match against China last week.

Timur Kapadze, Uzbekistan’s most capped player, spent a season in the K-League, recording five goals and three assists for Incheon United in 2011. The 31-year-old midfielder is to captain the Uzbek team tonight, which will be his 106th international match.

Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov played against experienced K-League clubs as he managed Bunyodkor during the Asian Football Confederation Champions League.

“Uzbek is enjoying momentum. It won three straight games,” Choi said. “But, we are playing a home match. Our players will show a different game at home.”

BY MOON GWANG-LIP [joe@joognang.co.kr]

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