In Malaysia, Korea squares off against Syria and the weather

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In Malaysia, Korea squares off against Syria and the weather

The second match of the final round for the upcoming World Cup qualifier is to take place tomorrow in Malaysia against Syria. Uli Stielike and the team seem to be in fine form with Hwang Ui-jo receiving an unexpected call-up to join the squad as its latest member. While the game against Syria is expected to be an easy win, the fickle weather in Seremban, Malaysia, could make for a tricky game.

While Korea is coming out of the first match of the qualifiers with a 3-2 win over China on Thursday, Syria suffered a 1-0 loss against Uzbekistan on Friday. Assigned to Group E in the previous round along with Japan, Singapore, Afghanistan and Cambodia, Syria came out of the group as its runner-up after the Japanese outfit with six wins and two losses, the two losses coming only from the matches against Japan. Impressive as the record may seem, however, Syria was routed by Japan 0-3 and 0-5. Against Korea, it is likely to play defensive football, as well.

Aware of this, Stielike had to bolster the team’s offense. The German-born manager already lost Suk Hyun-jun of Trabzonspor even before the qualifiers started, which meant he had fewer options for the center forward position. Suk dropped out of the roster because Stielike thought it best for the forward to take time to adjust to his new club in Turkey and travelling back and forth would only make things difficult for Suk. To make matters worse, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League, who was at the front of it all during the team’s offensive effort against China, left the team to return to his club.

A solid tactician, Stielike called up Hwang of Seongnam FC to fill the vacancy left by Son. “I was surprised when I got called up to join the team,” Hwang told reporters at the Paju National Football Center on Friday. “I will give everything I have for the team.” While Hwang fills in for Son, Ji Dong-won and Koo Ja-cheol will play alongside the Seongnam’s target man, as they did with Son against China, when Ji carded two assists including his cross to Koo, which he netted in the 66th minute. Ji and Koo, both playing for the FC Augsburg of German Bundesliga, have the chemistry in offense that Stielike can count on. With Hwang alongside the Augsburg duo, the three will have that much more synergy.

Now that Stielike has managed to get a handle on the most impending issue, the next challenge facing the squad is the venue’s fickle weather. Syria is currently in a civil war so it is in no position to host a football match, which is why the venue was initially set for Beirut, Lebanon. Safety concerns came to the surface once more, however, forcing the football associations of the two countries to find an alternative venue in Macau. But this plan was dashed when the Syrian Football Association and its Macau counterpart could not reach an agreement on terms and conditions. Finally, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided to host the game at Paroi Stadium in Seremban, Malaysia, about an hour away from Kuala Lumpur where the headquarters of the AFC are located.

In terms of weather, Seremban is at this time of year the typical Southeast Asian city: hot, humid and unpredictable. On Tuesday when the match is slated to take place, the weather forecast predicts scattered thunderstorms with the temperature going from 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) to 32 degrees and the level of precipitation at 80 percent and humidity at 76 percent.

The temperature at 8 p.m. during kick-off is forecasted to be around 28 degrees Celsius. But no one can really know what the weather will look like. Predictions are different for other forecast agencies, some conjecturing that it may be sunny on Tuesday. The only thing that the Korean squad can count on is that they have no idea how the weather will turn out, except that whether it is sunny or stormy, it will be swelteringly hot.

This is not the first time the Korean team is playing in Southeast Asia this year. In March, Korea played in a friendly against Thailand. Granted, Stielike and the team came out with a 1-0 win but the second half of the match was as miserable as any. The players seemed out of gas and they struggled against the Thai offense, a team that is ranked 120 according to the FIFA Rankings, 72 steps below Korea. Hence, the key point of the match against Syria will be how well players handle themselves in terms of stamina so as to not come crumbling down in the second half.

Meanwhile, the Syrian team remains optimistic in their bid to reach the World Cup to give hope to their otherwise war-torn nation. Syria has never qualified for the World Cup.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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