David vs. Goliath, but at Seoul World Cup Stadium
The Korean national football team face a challenge on Thursday as they take on world No. 1 Brazil at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Mapo District, western Seoul.
Captained by Premier League Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min, an injury-hobbled Taeguk Warriors squad will take on the world's top team in the first of four friendlies to be played over the next two weeks. The opening game offers by far the biggest challenge, with Korea ranking well below Brazil at No. 29 in the world.
History is also not on Korea's side. The two teams have faced each other six times in the past, with Korea winning just one — a 1-0 win a friendly in Seoul in March, 1999. The teams have met three times since then, with Brazil winning the most recent game 3-0 in 2019. That win, at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, was also Brazil's biggest to date and saw both sides field fairly similar teams to the ones that are likely to play on Thursday.
Korea enter the friendly slightly weakened as a few key players have to sit the friendly out due to injury.
Fenerbahce center back Kim Min-jae, who has been a key part of the Taeguk Warriors back line for years, is absent after undergoing surgery on his foot last month. The absence of Kim, affectionately known as The Monster for his formidable presence on the pitch, raises concerns about how well the Korean squad are going to be able to withstand the expected offensive onslaught from the Brazilian team.
"Min-jae has a lot of influence in the way we can play, due to his qualities and his features," Korea's head coach Paulo Bento said on Monday. "He's the fastest player in the defensive line. We must seek to change our strategy and our way of playing in the defensive way."
Kim is not the only regular starter missing from Thursday's lineup. Mainz midfielder Lee Jae-sung will also have to sit out the friendly after ending the Bundesliga season with a knee injury. Kim and Lee Jae-sung were both part of the squad that faced Brazil in 2019.
Hertha BSC's Lee Dong-jun, who has made four appearances for the Taeguk Warriors within the last year, is also out with a knee injury.
Despite the absences, Korea is still able to field a strong side including Son, who scored 23 goals for Tottenham Hotspur in the recently completed Premier League season to take the top scorer spot.
Alongside Son, Bento still has plenty of experienced players to call upon in midfield, with regularly picks like Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang Hee-chan, Kwon Chang-hoon of Gimcheon Sangmu, Kim Jin-gyu of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and the ever-reliable Jung Woo-young of Al-Sadd likely to make the squad.
Jung, who tends to play as a defensive midfielder and anchor the Korean attacking line, is likely to play a more important role in Thursday's game due to the absence of Kim. The 32-year-old, the third-most capped player on the squad, reportedly arrived at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi two weeks before the rest of the squad to begin training on his own.
"We're not going to dominate the game against Brazil as we dominated some games we've played before," Bento said. "We're going to play more time in our defensive midfield than before."
Bento also acknowledged that Korea's wingers will need to play far deeper than they normally do, with defense likely to be far more of a priority than the rapid attacks up the wing that the Taeguk Warriors often turn to.
On the attacking front, Hwang Ui-jo of Bordeaux is likely to get the nod out in front, quite possibly on his own if Bento opts for a more defensive formation.
On the Brazilian side, head coach Tite isn't pulling any punches for the friendly, arriving in Korea last week with his star-studded A team in tow.
Alongside the formidable Neymar of Paris Saint-Germain, the Brazilian lineup reads like a who's who of European football. The Brazilian starting XI is likely to include the likes of Liverpool's Alisson, Chelsea's Thiago Silva, Aston Villa's Philippe Coutinho, Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior and Barcelona's Dani Alves, to name a few.
Son has club history with a lot the Brazilian stars, and it isn't all bad. The Korean captain has beaten Alisson twice in the last season, although he didn't have to beat the Brazilian back line to get there on either occasion.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Son made it clear that the squad should think of the game as a learning opportunity.
"I don't think results in these matches are important," Son said. "Even if we don't play well, we should try to take as many lessons as possible."
Korea will face Brazil at Seoul World Cup Stadium at 8 p.m. on Thursday. Following that game, Korea will play Chile on June 6, Paraguay on June 10 and Egypt on June 14.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]