Bento left with questions to answer after Lebanon, Iraq games
The Korean national football team beat Lebanon 1-0 on Tuesday to take second place in Group A in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
The win secures Korea a much-needed three points and puts the team in a good position as qualifiers continue, but it also raises one huge question for the KFA and head coach Paulo Bento: Why is Korea under performing against significantly lower-ranked teams?
Korea 1-0 Lebanon
Korea had to take to the field on Tuesday without captain Son Heung-min, who was ruled out of the qualifier due to an injury to his right leg.
Cho Gue-sung was on the front line instead of Son, with Na Sang-ho and Hwang Hee-chan on the wings. Lee Dong-gyeong and Lee Jae-sung worked as central midfielders while Hwang In-beom hung back between the midfield and defense. Hong Chul, Kim Youg-gwon, Kim Min-jae and Lee Yong made up the back line.
Korea did everything right except score in the first half, outplaying Lebanon in terms of shots on target, ball possession and even defense, but once again failing to convert. When the whistle blew for half time, there were signs the match could end up being a repeat of last week's embarrassing draw against Iraq.
Korea's chance came 15 minutes into the second half, and Kwon Chang-hoon was the one to do it just moments after he came on the field.
Kwon and Song Min-kyu had come on for Lee Dong-gyeong and Na Sang-ho 12 minutes into the second half and three minutes later, Hwang Hee-chan set the ball up with a cross from the left and Kwon slotted in his seventh national team goal with confidence.
Kwon's goal was it for the match and Korea took a much-needed three points when the whistle blew. A 1-0 win over a team that ranks 62 places lower — Lebanon is No. 98 to Korea's 36 — is not a great result, but a win is a win and it keeps Korea on track for the World Cup.
"In general, the victory was fair. The goal difference, in my opinion, is not," Bento said in a post-match press conference. "If we had been [more] efficient in the first half, we could have decided the game in the first 45 minutes. But I am satisfied because of the victory and also because I think the performance was good."
The current Korean squad has a wealth of international experience, with more than half the players that started Tuesday's game playing in top-tier clubs around the world — Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang Hee-chan, Mainz's Lee Jae-sung, Fenerbahce's Kim Min-jae, Rubin Kazan's Hwang In-beom, Gamba Osaka's Kim Young-gwon and Kashiwa Reysol's Kim Swung-gyu.
When you add the names on the bench — Osaka's Ju Se-jong, Shandong Taishan's Son Jun-ho, Los Angeles F.C.'s Kim Moon-hwan and Bordeaux's Hwang Ui-jo — and of course Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, it's clear that the Taeguk Warriors today are, at least individually, one of the most competitive sides Korea has ever fielded.
But despite their individual talents, Korea as a team struggles to get the job done.
Korea 0-0 Iraq
Korea last week struggled to a 0-0 draw with Iraq, an embarrassing result for a team that had been expected to sail through the World Cup qualifiers.
Korea dominated the game — as well they should at world No. 36 to Iraq's No. 70 — but were unable to do anything to impact the score.
Korea had 15 shots to Iraq's two and 68 percent of the ball, but the five shots that were actually on target were all simple saves for Iraq's Fahad Talib. Korea's defense was a bright point in that game as well, with Kim Min-jae leading a back line that managed to keep Iraq away from the goal even as the team's offense failed to make an impact at the other end of the pitch.
The win and draw give Korea four points in second place in Group A. There are two groups of six in the third round of Asian qualifiers with the top two teams from each group heading to the World Cup and the third team advancing to a fourth round playoff.
Korea was drawn alongside world No. 26 Iran, No. 68 United Arab Emirates, No. 80 Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Of those teams, only Iran was expected to present a serious challenge to the Taeguk Warriors, who have qualified for every World Cup since 1986.
In both the Lebanon and Iraq game, Korea's problem was clearly its inability to score goals. Bento and his staff now have a month before the next game — against Syria on Oct. 7 — to attempt to address that issue. The team's inability to convert opportunities and tendency for attacks to collapse in the face of a physical, aggressive defense will have to be addressed, especially before Korea takes on Iran on Oct. 12.
Speaking after the Lebanon game, Bento acknowledged that the team played too defensively.
"The part of the game that I didn't like so much was when we started controlling the game in our defensive midfield, instead of controlling the game in the offensive midfield," he said.
"I don't know what will come in the future. The future for me is October. No more than that. Just thinking about October and trying to play as well as possible, correct certain things we did, and prepare for the next two games in the best possible way."
BY JIM BULLEY, YUN SO-HYANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]