Just 90 minutes (plus injury time) to make historyOne more win over a familiar foe in a familiar city and Korea will reach unfamiliar territory at the FIFA U-20 World Cup: the championship final.
Korea will take on Ecuador in the semifinals at Lublin Stadium in Lublin, Poland, at 8:30 p.m., today, local time, or 3:30 a.m., tomorrow, Seoul time.
Korea has never finished higher than fourth at the biennial youth tournament. In 1983, it advanced to the semifinals but lost to Brazil, and then fell to Poland in the third-place match.
Korea beat Ecuador 1-0 in a pretournament tuneup match on May 17, though it was an unofficial contest held behind closed doors. But such a recent history certainly won’t hurt, and Korea can use all the mental edge they can get after coming off a grueling, penalty shootout win over Senegal in the quarterfinals.
Korea won its round of 16 match in Lublin against Japan, and head coach Chung Jung-yong said he and his players still have “fond memories” of Lublin.
“I told the players earlier that we should try to conquer as many cities as we could in Poland, because the deeper we got into the tournament, the more cities we’d visit,” he said Sunday. “We’ve been here before, and we have fond memories of the place. Overall, the team atmosphere is great, and everyone is on the same page. I think we’ll end up with a good result.”
Both Korea and Ecuador overcame a shaky start to come this far in the tournament. Korea dropped its first Group F match to Portugal 1-0 but has since won four straight games. Ecuador had a draw and a loss to start its Group B play, and squeezed into the round of 16 as one of the four best third-place teams after edging out Mexico 1-0 in the final group match.
Korea knocked off rivals Japan 1-0 in the round of 16 and then defeated Senegal 3-2 on penalties in an insanely intense match.
Ecuador stunned Group C winners Uruguay 3-1 in the first knockout match and then took care of the United States 2-1 in the quarters.
For Korea, it will be a test of mental fortitude as much as a physical battle. Chung had expressed concerns about his players’ fatigue even before playing Senegal. The 120 minutes of action plus the heart-stopping shootout won’t help in that regard, and the adrenaline rush from such a dramatic win can only carry players so far.
In the previous two knockout matches, Chung deployed passive, defense-oriented tactics in the first half before switching gears in the second half. That way, some key attacking players were able to conserve their energy early and make an offensive push later. Chung also brought some regular players off the bench against Senegal, and forward Cho Young-wook, a starter in the first five matches, delivered a go-ahead goal early in extra time on fresh legs as a second-half sub.
Korea’s offense starts with midfielder Lee Kang-in, who has been given free rein to operate up front. He scored a goal and assisted on two others against Senegal, getting himself involved in all three Korean goals before the shootout.
Lee was taken out during extra time as he dealt with bouts of muscle cramps, but the team’s youngest player, at 18, should be ready for another starting duty.
With Lee being the top facilitator for Korea, forwards Cho and Oh Se-hun are tied for the team lead with two goals apiece.