Korea to face old rivals Japan in winner-takes-all EAFF E-1 final game
The Korean men's football team will take on local rivals Japan in a winner-takes-all final game of the 2022 EAFF E-1 Football Championship in Toyota, Japan on Wednesday as the Taeguk Warriors look to overcome recent history and beat the hosts in the two sides' 81st meeting.
Korea and Japan face each other in the final game of the E-1 championships, a four-nation round robin tournament typically played every two or three years. As a small round robin tournament, there is no knockout stage, meaning that whoever walks away with the most points after all six games have been played is the winner.
The Taeguk Warriors currently top the table with six points, followed by Japan with four points, China with one point and Hong Kong with no points. The two-point lead means that Korea only needs a draw to win the tournament, but if Japan are able to take the win they will jump above Korea to take the title.
Korea and Japan are longstanding rivals on the football pitch, with a long history that started with a 5-1 Korea win in 1954 and most recently saw Japan beat Korea 3-0 in a friendly last year. The two teams have played a total of 80 times, with Korea winning 42 games to Japan's 15.
Despite that 2021 loss, Korea has mostly held on to the upper hand in recent meetings, winning 4-1 when the two teams met at the 2017 EAFF E-1 Football Championship and 1-0 when they met at the 2019 tournament.
But there are reasons for Korea's head coach Paulo Bento to be nervous going in to Wednesday's game.
Korea's humbling 3-0 loss back in March 2021 was blamed in part on the fact that Korea was not able to field a full-strength squad for the friendly, with players based in Europe like Son Heung-min, Hwang Hee-chan, Hwang Ui-jo, Lee Jae-sung and Kim Min-jae unavailable to join the squad.
The Taeguk Warriors face the exact same problem this year. The loss of the overseas-based players has left Bento with a heavily stripped-back squad. Go-to goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, defender Kim Min-jae, midfielders Son, Hwang Hee-chan, Lee, Jung Woo-young and Jeong Woo-yeong and forward Hwang Ui-jo are all absent as they return to league duties overseas.
But a lot has changed in 18 months and Bento has spent a good part of that time nurturing Korea's home-based talent. The squad that takes to the field on Wednesday will be completely different from the one that faced Japan last year, when Bento was playing Lee Kang-in and Lee Dong-jun up front.
Instead, Korea has the tried and tested combination of Cho Gue-sung and Kwon Chang-hoon up front, alongside players like Um Won-sang and Paik Seung-ho, all of whom have earned their spot in the national team even when the likes of Son and Hwang Hee-chan are in town.
Veteran defenders Kim Jin-su and Hong Chul are also likely to be present, and while the absence of Kim Min-jae in defense is always felt, the rest of the back line have proven capable of picking up the slack.
Most of the players that take on Japan on Wednesday are likely to make it into Korea's squad for the 2022 Qatar World Cup, so the atmosphere is also likely to be very different to last year's friendly. That game was a matter of pride, this one has a trophy on the line and a chance to impress Bento and secure that spot in the squad.
On paper, Japan outrank Korea at No. 24 in the FIFA World Ranking to Korea's No. 28. For Korea to be at all competitive when it comes to Qatar, that is the kind of deficit that Bento and the squad need to be confident in their ability to overcome.
Korea and Japan will face off in the final game of the 2022 EAFF E-1 Football Championship at Toyota Stadium in Toyota at 7:20 p.m. on Wednesday.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]