Bento’s boys face greatest challenge yet
Korea and Qatar will square off in the quarterfinals at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Friday. The kickoff is set for 5 p.m. (local time) and 10 p.m. (Seoul time).
Korea, No. 53 in the latest FIFA rankings - No. 4 among AFC members - reached the knockout stage by winning Group C, where it edged past the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan and China. The Taeguk Warriors had a 2-1 extra-time win over Bahrain in the round of 16 to join the last eight.
Qatar - No. 93 in the world and the No. 13 in Asia - won Group E after beating Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and North Korea. The Maroons defeated Iraq 1-0 in the round of 16.
Korea leads the head-to-head record with five wins, two draws and two losses against Qatar, but one of the two losses came from their 2017 meeting in Doha, Qatar, where Korea suffered a shocking 3-2 defeat in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
Nine Korean players who experienced that painful defeat two years ago hope to get their revenge on Qatar this time around.
Korea head coach Paulo Bento has been sticking to a 4-2-3-1 formation at the Asian Cup, and he is likely to use it again, although there could be some changes in the starting lineup.
Left-back Kim Jin-su, who scored the winning goal against Bahrain, may get the nod ahead of his rival Hong Chul, who struggled to produce quality crosses in the round of 16 match. With skillful midfielder Lee Jae-sung still doubtful due to a toe injury, Bento may use other attacking options like Lee Seung-woo, who made his Asian Cup debut against Bahrain.
The Portuguese head coach will hope his players can recover in time from the extra-time battle against Bahrain. Qatar, meanwhile, completed their round of 16 match in 90 minutes.
Bento is expected to use the team captain Son Heung-min as central-attacking midfielder, like he did in the two previous matches. So far, the Tottenham Hotspur forward has been focusing on creating chances for teammates rather than scoring at this tournament. Despite playing only two matches, Son has already created 10 scoring opportunities, the second most among all players at the competition.
With veteran anchorman Ki Sung-yueng ruled out for the tournament, Jung Woo-young and Hwang In-beom will occupy center-midfield.
In particular, Jung has been the key man in Korea’s buildup from the back. He leads the tournament with a total of 430 passes. Jung is also familiar with Qatari football as he currently plays for Qatar Stars League club Al-Sadd. Nine players from Qatar’s 23-man squad are from that club.
Korea is undefeated at this tournament, but they have yet to show explosive attacking power. Despite dominating ball possession, its lack of precision in the attacking third has led to inefficient offense.
Korea has attempted 68 shots in four matches, the most among Asian Cup participants, but with only six goals to show for it.
Unlike Korea’s mediocre conversion rate, Qatar has been staying in superb form when it comes to scoring goals.
Qatar, coached by Spanish tactician Felix Sanchez, is the leading scoring team at this tournament so far with 11 goals in four matches. But what’s more impressive is its efficiency in attack as the Arab nation produced those 11 goals from only 45 shots.
Additionally, Qatar has yet to concede a goal during this tournament. Sanchez’s team and Iran are the only two teams at this tournament maintaining clean sheets.
It’s so far Qatar’s best Asian Cup performance since they made their debut in 1980. Before they host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar will try to make a strong impression in the football community by reaching the Asian Cup semifinals, a stage it has yet to reach.