Nat’l team takes stock after Europe matches

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Nat’l team takes stock after Europe matches

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Uli Stielike scratches his head during a press conference after arriving at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday. For Stielike and the team, the two friendlies last week were an invaluable experience. [NEWSIS]

Where do we go from here?

That’s the question Uli Stielike and the national football team are asking themselves after returning from their European tour on Tuesday.

The German-born manager had long wanted the opportunity to put his team to the test since taking the helm 20 months ago, and as he expected, the matches against Europe’s football elites provided a clear sense of the problems needing to be fixed before the upcoming final round of the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.

During the first week of June, Korea faced Spain (No. 6 by FIFA ranking) and Czech Republic (No. 30) in international friendlies. While Korea (No. 50) was routed by Spain 6-1, the team emerged with a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic.

Now, it’s time for the Korean team to evaluate what it needs to take away from the experience.

“Against Spain, we displayed some promising moments, but they were overshadowed by the match result,” said Stielike according to Yonhap News Agency. He emphasized that the lessons learned are more valuable than the scores themselves.

“It’s difficult to compare the two games,” he said. “But the team performed well for the first 25 minutes of the Spanish game, perhaps more so than the first 25 minutes of the match against the Czechs.”

We were more aggressive in attacks against Spain, while against Czech Republic, we were more determined and tenacious defensively,” he added. “We will have to put together the good things from the two games.”

According to Stielike’s assessment, the team came out of the two friendlies with improved mental strength, but it also saw how technique was the biggest thing that needs fixing before the World Cup qualifiers.

“After the huge loss against Spain, the players only had four days to recover mentally,” Stielike recalled. “But, they showed full recovery [in such short period of time]. I think the biggest gain from last week is the mentality.”

Stielike also pointed out that technique was the homework for the national team. “I know this will not be solved in a day or two, but our techniques were poor,” said Stielike. “I will also think about our ability to press opponents in small space.”

For the players, they are coming out of the two games more experienced and confident.

“It was a long and exhausting trip but undoubtedly a good experience,” said defender Jang Hyun-soo of Guangzhou R&F. “Watching the game [against Spain], we played it close. Overall it didn’t look so bad.”

In general, the players looked more confident than before - just what Stielike hoped for when he insisted the Korea Football Association to set up friendlies.

Suk Hyun-jun, who drove a winning goal against Czech’s world-class goalie Petr Cech, was one of the players that looked more self-assured. Stielike didn’t shy away from commending him, saying, “He displayed the best performance since we’ve convened.”

Suk himself sounded confident when he said, “Not just Cech, but I was confident that I could score against any goalie. I just thought to myself that I was going drill in that shot.”

In addition to Suk, another added gain for Stielike was the return of the “pathfinder” Yoon Bit-garam, who led the team’s victory over the Czechs with one goal and one assist. His goal was especially impressive as he nailed in a brilliant free kick, which Korea hasn’t seen in a while. Yoon, once a promising star who was quickly outshined by players like Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min, is now being considered as a possible leader of the team alongside Ki and Son.

But unlike Yoon, Son has been criticized for not meeting expectations. Deemed the team’s ace, the English Premier League player was expected to lead the team in the offense but seemed stumped in the matches.

“I realized once again just how strong European football is,” said Son.

BY KIM HEE-SEON, CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]
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