Korea look to beat old rivals Iran in penultimate World Cup qualifier
The Taeguk Warriors will take on Iran in the penultimate qualifier for the 2022 Qatar World Cup at Seoul World Cup Stadium in western Seoul on Thursday as Korea looks to beat its long-term rivals and take the top spot in Group A.
Pride is the only thing that's really on the line in Thursday's game, with both Korea and Iran already guaranteed a ticket to the Qatar World Cup. Iran currently tops Group A in the third round of Asian qualifiers, followed by Korea on 20 points. The United Arab Emirates trail on nine points.
The top two teams from each of the two groups will advance to the World Cup, with the third place team heading to a fourth round playoff for the final spot. Lebanon on six points and Iraq on five points could both still challenge the UAE for that third spot, with only Syria currently definitely not headed to Qatar.
Korea and Iran are old rivals and two of the strongest national football teams in Asia. Iran is currently the No. 1 team in Asia, at No. 21 in the world, followed by Japan at No. 23 and Korea at No. 29.
The Korea-Iran rivalry is one of the oldest in Asian football, with the sides emerging as two of the continents top contenders in the 1970s. They've played a total of 32 games against each other since they first met at the 1958 Asian Games, when Korea won 5-0.
In the early days of the rivalry Korea often had the advantage, but that started to change in the 21st Century. Korea has only beaten Iran once since 2006 — 1-0 at the Asian Cup in 2011 — while Iran has won six times. Following the 2011 Asian Cup, Iran won four straight games before Korea found their feet in 2017 and forced the Middle Eastern side to a draw the last three times they met.
The two sides held each other to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the third round qualifiers, with Son Heung-min scoring the opening goal for Korea in the 48th minute and Iran's Alireza Jahanbakhsh equalizing in the 76th.
That first game against Iran was one of the few times the Taeguk Warriors were operating at more-or-less full strength, without any of the injuries that have plagued the squad throughout the last year. Tottenham Hotspur's Son, Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang Hee-chan, Bordeaux's Hwang Ui-jo, Rubin Kazan's Hwang In-beom, Mainz's Lee Jae-sung and Fenerbahce's Kim Min-jae all started, with only Kwon Chang-hoon really missing from the recent regulars.
Thursday's squad looks set to be more or less the same. Hwang In-beom is out with an injury, but the rest of the international players have been able to report for duty. Further down the roster, however, things are a little more shaky. Paik Seung-ho and Kim Jin-kyu of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Jeong Woo-yeong of SC Freiburg and Na Sang-ho of FC Seoul have all been excluded from the team after testing positive for Covid-19.
Their spots have been filled by Won Du-jae of Ulsan Hyundai, Nam Tae-hee of Al-Duhail, Cho Young-wook of FC Seoul and Ko Seung-beom of Gimcheon Sangmu, but what effect that will have on the team remains to be seen.
While Thursday's game is irrelevant in terms of World Cup qualification, it could still affect the final tournament.
FIFA announced on Tuesday that the World Cup draw will be made on April 1 in Doha, Qatar, using world rankings published on March 31. Teams will be placed into four pots dependent on their world ranking, with a win in the last two qualifiers potentially moving Korea up a pot. In practice, this has little real meaning as the draw is still almost entirely luck, with the pots only serving to spread out the similarly-ranked teams.
Korea will take on Iran at Seoul World Cup Stadium at 8 p.m. on Thursday. Following that game, the Taeguk Warriors will play their final qualifier for the 2022 Qatar World Cup against the UAE on Tuesday at Al-Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]