Son Heung-min faces his greatest challenge yet

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Son Heung-min faces his greatest challenge yet

By any measure, Son Heung-min has had a long season, both for his club Tottenham Hotspur and the Korean national team.

And beating Liverpool for the UEFA Champions League title would be the ultimate icing on the cake.

Son is poised to become only the second Korean to appear in the Champions League final, joining former Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung, when the Spurs and Liverpool square off at Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid this weekend. The kickoff is 9 p.m. Saturday, local time, and 4 a.m. Sunday, Seoul time.

In the team’s media day in London earlier this week, Son said it’s a “dream come true” to get a chance to play in the Champions League final.

“Whether you’re a Korean or a European player, it’s everyone’s dream to play in the Champions League final,” he said. “I remember watching Ji-sung play in the final [in 2009 and 2011] and thinking to myself that I wanted to be there as well. This is such a precious opportunity. But I am not just happy to be here. I’d love to win the title.”

Son said he wants to make sure he doesn’t get too carried away and he treats the final just like any other match, or he may find himself trying to do too much.

The early part of Son’s 2018-2019 season was dominated by the Asian Games. Selected to the under-23 national team as an overage “wild-card” player, Son captained Korea to the gold medal over Japan, earning himself an exemption from the mandatory military service in the process.

Son didn’t score his first goal of the season for the Spurs until October, grabbing a brace in a league cup match against West Ham. His first Premier League goal came in November.

After shaking off a slow start, Son caught fire in December and now enters the Champions League final with 20 goals in all competitions, just one shy of a career high set two seasons ago. In between, Son answered the call when Korea summoned him for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in January in the United Arab Emirates. But under a prior agreement between Korea and the Spurs, Son was held out for the first two group matches. Son failed to hit the ground running after joining the team late, as Korea was knocked out of the quarterfinals by the eventual champion Qatar.

Save for a couple of international friendlies in March, Son has been able to concentrate on his club duties in the spring. And he’s now gearing up for what is easily the biggest match of his club career.

“My season isn’t over yet. It’s been really long, but I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me,” Son said. “The best players are the ones who can maintain their top form for the whole season. I’ve learned a great deal.”

Given his goal scoring prowess - Son has netted four goals in 11 Champions League matches in the run to the final - there is little question Son will be on the field. Whether as a starter or off the bench remains to be seen.

Harry Kane, who led the Spurs with 24 goals this season, has declared himself fit to return for the final, after missing nearly two months with an ankle injury suffered during the Champions League quarterfinals against Manchester City.

In Kane’s absence, the likes of Son and Lucas Moura have been carrying Tottenham’s offense. Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino has faced some pressure from fans and media to sit Kane at the start of the final.

Son said it was out of his control whether he will start the final.

“It’s up to the coach, and the most important thing is for our team to win,” Son said. “I am just desperate to show the best version of myself on the field.”

Son said even after the whirlwind of a season, he has no issues in terms of his conditioning or fitness. The Spurs haven’t played since knocking off Ajax in the Champions League semifinals on May 8.

Asked to assess Liverpool, Son said his focus is on his own club, not the opponents.

“We’re getting ready for the match in our own way, and I think the team that’s mentally prepared will win,” he said. “We all know Liverpool is a strong team, but so are we.”

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