Moldova friendly is chance for Korea's unseen stars to shine
The Korean men's football team will take on Moldova on Friday in the second of two international friendlies before qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup resume next week.
Korea has been fielding a stripped-back national squad made up entirely of K League and J League players with international breaks in most European leagues not set to begin until after the weekend. The missing European stars didn't prove an issue in the first friendly against Iceland last week, with Korea walking away with a huge 5-1 win against the lower-ranked team.
Last week's game against Iceland and this week's against Moldova provide an opportunity for head coach Paulo Bento to observe some of the national team's lesser-known players, especially midfielders and attackers who are unlikely to get called up when the likes of Son Heung-min, Hwang Hee-chan, Hwang Ui-jio and Lee Jae-sung are in the mix.
That opportunity is clearly already paying off. In last Saturday's game against Iceland, Cho Gue-sung of Gimcheon Sangmu, Paik Seung-ho of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Kim Jin-gyu of Busan IPark and Eom Ji-seong of Gwangju FC all scored their first games for the national team, with two of them — Kim and Eom — making it onto the scoreboard in their debut with the senior squad.
The only familiar face among last week's goal scorers was national team regular and recent K League returnee Kwon Chang-hoon of Gimcheon Sangmu, providing a little continuity in a squad of rising stars.
Friday's game against Moldova is likely to be more of the same, with world No. 33 Korea expecting little challenge from the eastern European country that ranks at No. 181. Bento will likely take the opportunity of what should be a very easy match to cycle through more of the squad's less-seen players as he decides who heads home this week and who travels to the Middle East for next week's World Cup qualifiers.
After the Moldova game, which will be played in Turkey, the national team will head to Lebanon for a qualifier on Jan. 27, followed by a game against Syria on Feb. 1.
Bento has already called in the big guns for the qualifiers, with Kim Min-jae of Fenerbahce, Lee of Mainz, Jung Woo-young of Al Sadd, Jeong Woo-yeong of SC Freiburg, Hwang In-beom of Rubin Kazan and Hwang Ui-jo of Bordeaux all called up earlier this week.
Conspicuously absent are captain Son of Tottenham Hotspur and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, both of whom are currently out with injuries — Son with an unnamed muscle injury and Hwang with a hamstring injury — and are not expected to be available for international duty.
The KFA hasn't outright excluded the Premier League pair, however, saying that a decision will be made at a later date. If either Son or Hwang is called up — although at this stage it looks highly unlikely — one of the K League or J League attackers will presumably have to give up their spot in Bento's final squad.
Korea will take on Moldova at Mardan Sports Complex in Antalya, Turkey at 2 p.m. on Friday, or at 8 p.m. in Korea.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]