Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min fitness a concern ahead of Uruguay match

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Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min fitness a concern ahead of Uruguay match

Son Heung-min, left, and Hwang Hee-chan train in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 17.  [NEWS1]

Son Heung-min, left, and Hwang Hee-chan train in Doha, Qatar on Nov. 17. [NEWS1]

The Korea Football Association confirmed over the weekend that midfielder Hwang Hee-chan is still struggling with discomfort in his hamstring. With Son Heung-min still recovering from surgery, neither of Korea’s top two forwards are in peak condition just four days before the Taeguk Warriors play their first game of the World Cup.
Hwang’s hamstring has been a concern since Nov. 12, when he didn’t even get a spot on the bench in Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 loss to Arsenal, the club’s last game before the international break.  
Reports after the game suggested he was out due to hamstring discomfort, a phrase that has been repeated by the Korean camp over the last 10 days with repeated reassurances that discomfort doesn’t mean an injury.
That game against Arsenal came just a few days after Hwang had played the full 90 minutes in a Carabao Cup game against Leeds United, marking his first complete match so far this season. He did not show any significant signs of discomfort during that fixture, but may have over extended himself with a far longer outing than he has been used to.
Hwang has been struggling in front of goal with Wolves, failing to score since Feb. 24, a huge dry spell that now encompasses 26 appearances.
But for the national team, it’s a very different story. Hwang Hee-chan is a Taeguk Warriors regular, appearing in almost every game as either a starter or a fresh pair of legs in the second half.  
He has made four appearances for Korea this year, appearing for at least 60 minutes in every game he was available for and scoring two goals; against Chile on June 6 and Costa Rica on Sept. 23.
But while Hwang’s ongoing “discomfort” gives little indication of his playing condition, talismanic captain Son is definitely dealing with a far more substantial injury.  
Son underwent surgery earlier this month on one or multiple orbital fractures after his eye socket was fractured during a collision in the 29th minute of a Champions League game between Tottenham Hotspur and Marseille at Stade Velodrome in Marseille, France on Nov. 1.
He’s been back in training for the last week wearing a large black carbon-fiber mask — a look that has already earned him the nickname Captain Zorro in the Korean press — but it remains unclear how fit he will be to play when Korea take on Uruguay on Thursday.
Speaking to reporters last week, Son made it clear that while he feels OK running and training, he’s not a doctor and he has no idea what his recovery is going to look like.
“I’m not a doctor,” Son said on Nov. 16. “I would be the first one to update you on my situation if knew anything. What I can tell you right now is that I will always do my best and that all footballers in every match play with some sort of risk.”
While Son’s fitness has remained a question, the man himself says he absolutely intends to play at the World Cup, even if it could be risky to do so.
Question marks over both Son and Hwang Hee-chan’s fitness leave head coach Paulo Bento in a tricky position. The pair are two of Korea’s most experienced and versatile midfielders, and with serious doubts over regular forward Hwang Ui-jo’s performance as well, Bento is left with increasingly few options.
While Jung Woo-young is the most-capped midfielder after Son, he has his own role to play in front of the defense and can do very little to fill the shoes of either attacker. Lee Jae-sung is another veteran with plenty to offer, but in recent years he has been more of a playmaker than a goal scorer.
Kwon Chang-hoon and Hwang In-beom are both fairly reliable options, although Kwon has been fairly inconsistent recently and Hwang In-beom also tends to fall into a playmaking role.
Instead, Bento may have to dig a little deeper and rely on some of the less experienced Taeguk Warriors. Cho Gue-sung, Paik Seung-ho, Song Min-kyu and Jeong Woo-yeong have all played well in the past, and Lee Kang-in's club performance suggests he has a lot more to offer than he’s be given a chance for in the past.
Bento has four more days of training before he has to make that difficult choice. Korea face Uruguay at Education City Stadium in Doha, Qatar at 4 p.m. on Thursday, or at 10 p.m. in Korea.

BY JIM BULLEY [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]
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