Korea to take on Lebanon as Qatar qualifiers resume
The Korean national football team will take on Lebanon on Thursday in the second leg of the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
A slightly reformed Taeguk Warriors will take to the field at Saida Municipal Stadium in Sidon, Lebanon, with regular captain Son Heung-min and forward Hwang Hee-chan both out with injuries.
The two Premier League stars have both been out for a few weeks with injuries — Son with a muscle injury and Hwang with a hamstring injury — and are unable to join the national team. The pair, along with Um Won-sang of Gwangju FC, are the three changes in the midfield from the last round of qualifiers in November last year. Their spots have filled by the return of national team regular Kwon Chang-hoon of Gimcheon Sangmu, Kim Jin-gyu of Busan iPark and Lee Dong-jun of Ulsan Hyundai.
Up front, Hwang Ui-jo of Bordeaux FC returns to the national squad after missing the last two qualifiers with an ankle injury. The only other change to the national squad from the November games is in defense, where Jung Seung-hyun of Gimcheon Sangmu is replaced by Kim Young-gwon of Ulsan.
With the exception of Son and Hwang Hee-chan, Korea's international stars return in full force. Hwang Ui-jo, who joins the squad days after scoring a phenomenal hat trick that made him the top-scoring Asian footballer of all time in France's Ligue 1, is joined by Hwang In-beom of Rubin Kazan, Jeong Woo-yeong of SC Freiburg, Jung Woo-young of Al Sadd, Lee Jae-sung of Mainz, Kwon Kyoung-won of Gamba Osaka, Kim Seung-gyu of Kashiwa Reysol and Kim Min-jae of Fenerbahce.
Korea enter Thursday's game in a strong position at second in Group A, two points behind Iran in first place and eight points clear of the United Arab Emirates in third. With the top two teams advancing straight to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, it would take a spectacular collapse over the remaining four games for Korea to miss out on a spot.
Even if Korea did somehow manage to lose every remaining game and slip behind the United Arab Emirates, the third-place team will advance to a fourth-round playoff for the final World Cup spot.
Korea beat Lebanon 1-0 in the first leg at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, Gyeonggi on Sept. 7, with Kwon Chang-hoon scoring the winning goal in the 59th minute. The result was disappointing for world No. 33 Korea, with No. 95 Lebanon expected to be an easy target for the Taeguk Warriors.
That first leg result was representative of Korea's slow start to the third round of qualifiers — five days earlier the squad had drawn 0-0 with world No. 75 Iraq — but the team seems to have settled down since then.
The second section of qualifiers saw Korea take a 2-1 over Syria and draw 1-1 with Iran, who outrank Korea at No. 21 in the world. In the most recent games in November, Korea beat the United Arab Emirates 1-0 and Iraq 3-0.
But how Korea will handle the loss of both Son and Hwang Hee-chan remains to be seen. Across the six games so far, the Premier League pair have been responsible for four of the Taeguk Warriors' eight goals. Kwon Chang-hoon, Hwang In-beom, Lee Jae-sung and Jeong have one each, while Hwang UI-jo is yet to score in the third round.
Korea does have one advantage going into this game that it didn't have in the earlier matches. Due to the timing of the Korean and Japanese leagues, the players based in those leagues have been free to join the national team early this time and enter Thursday's game off the back of two successful friendlies: Beating Moldova 4-0 on Jan. 21 and Iceland 5-1 on Jan. 15.
Korea will face Lebanon at Saida Municipal Stadium in Sidon, Lebanon at 2 p.m. on Thursday, or at 9 p.m. in Korea.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]