The first international action of 2020 has begun in earnest in Thailand as the AFC U-23 Championship, the Olympic Football qualifiers, has been going on for the past 2 weeks. We’re down to 4 teams now and our young Taegeuk Warriors are still fighting to be one of the 3 Asian squads to join hosts Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
How Have the Taegeuk Warriors Played?
Through four matches, all victories, the Taegeuk Warriors have grown stronger with each match. Overall, this team has a fluent midfield that can rotate pieces easily without losing control against their opponents. The defense is strong enough to withstand most attacks, although they may need an overage reinforcement should they go to Tokyo. In attack, there are a bunch of dangerous players on the dribble, with pace and guile. However, sometimes their finishing lets them down a bit.
In the first match against China, it took a late stoppage time winner on a long ball over the top from Lee Dong-jun. China had sat deep all match and save for a few good runs from Um Wonsang, Korea couldn’t generate too many clear cut chances. Although the Taegeuk Warriors controlled the ball, passing decisions and runs weren’t made quick enough and the ball would end up out wide with the fullbacks. Kang Yoonsung at RB received a lot of passes out wide but his crossing was not nearly accurate or dangerous enough. It wasn’t until late in second half stoppage time that the Busan IPark connection of Kim Jingyu and Lee Dongjun produced a moment of magic to win the match. Kim Jingyu lofted a ball over the top of a tired Chinese defense to his Busan teammate, who took it down easily enough and slotted it past the onrushing keeper. (Highlights here)
On matchday 2 against Iran, the Taegeuk Warriors came up with a 2-1 win as a dominant first half display gave them the lead needed to see out the victory. In the 22nd minute, the new midfield combination of Won Dujae and Maeng Sungwoong connected to get Maeng the space to run at the defense and have a shot. The goalkeeper could only parry and Lee Dongjun pounced to grab his second goal of the tournament. Twelve minutes later, Maeng was again the provider as he fed his FC Anyang teammate Cho Kyuseong near the top of the box. Cho got it out of his feet quickly and rocketed his shot into the net for a 2-0 lead. In the second half, Iran got back into the match with a well-worked corner routine. In the 54th minute they took the corner short, put the cross back post, and Reza Shekari out-jumped Jeong Wooyeong for the header to pull one back. From there, Iran pushed for an equalizer with a few more scrambles in the box. However, the defense stayed firm and Korea made it 2 wins from 2 in Group C. (Highlights here)
On the final Group C matchday, the Taegeuk Warriors faced their sternest test as they came up against the defending champions Uzbekistan. The match got off to an incredible start as a livelier Jeong Wooyeong found space down the left to send in a low cross. A poor clearance fell out to Jeong Seungwon, who decided to have a crack from distance. His shot deflected off the back of Oh Sehun, leaving Uzbek goalkeeper Nematov helpless. However, the lead only lasted until the 21st minute when a near post cross led to a looping header goal for Bobir Abdixolikov. Again, the problem for Korea was not marking runners tightly in the box, as Jeong Taewook was beaten to the ball by a shorter player. Korea looked to go back ahead from there, and especially Um Wonsang looked dangerous as a right winger. He was his usually pacy and tricky self, running hard past defenders and manufacturing as much space as he could in the box. In the end though, it was actually a goal out of nothing that would decide the match. What looked like an innocuous pass that Lee Dong-gyeong couldn’t control actually turned out to be the perfect cushioning for Oh Sehun. The ball came to him at the top of the box, and he was able to turn his defender and take the shot on the half volley, finding the corner of the net for a 2-1 lead. The birthday boy had grabbed a crucial brace to send Korea to the top of Group C. (Highlights here)
Today at the Thammasat Stadium in Rangsit, the Taegeuk Warriors marched one step closer to Tokyo with a dramatic win over Jordan. For most of the match, Korea was in control of the midfield with the 3-man midfield of Won Dujae, Kim Jingyu, and Maeng Sungwoong comfortable. On the left wing, Kim Daewon had a impressive first half, comfortable on the dribble, testing the superb Jordan keeper al-Fakhouri with a stinger, and switching play really easily. The breakthrough came early as a 16th minute free kick yielded a chance for a play straight from the training ground. Kim Jingyu took a free kick on the ground to Kim Daewon, who deftly lofted it towards the tall CB pairing of Jeong Taewook and Lee Sangmin. Jeong got his head to the ball and nodded it down into the ground towards the middle of the box. It became a race for the ball between al-Fakhouri and Lee Dongjun, with both getting some of the ball. Fortunately for Korea, the ball looped right over to Cho Kyuseong, who happily scored his second goal of the tournament. The first half pressure would continue from Kim Daewon as he switched play brilliantly to Lee Dongjun, who rushed at the defense. Disorganization from Jordan left Cho Kyuseong wide open but he unfortunately couldn’t add to his tally as he skied the shot while one on one with the keeper.
In the second half, Jordan would come out stronger and it became pretty clear that Korea would need another goal. Kim Jingyu hit the post off a free kick early in the half, with Cho Kyuseong and Kim Jinya also forcing al-Fakhouri into more saves. With al-Fakhouri keeping his side in the match, it was Jordan who equalized in 75th minute through sub al-Naimat. Lee Sang-min had stepped up for some reason, leaving the sub unmarked at the top of the box. He took an errant shot under control and was able to shoot far post past Song Bum-keun. It could have gotten even worse as a few minutes later Jordan were again free in the box. On that occasion two attackers got in each other’s way and the chance went begging. It looked to be heading to extra time until substitute Lee Dong-gyeong took matters into his own hands.
Deep into stoppage time, Lee won a free kick with some clever footwork. He used the “His foot was there so I’ll fall over it” tactic to perfection to win himself a perfectly placed free kick at the top of the box. I’ll just let you watch the rest, because it’s perfect.
2-1 Korea and we go to the semis against Australia Wednesday.
How is Kim Hak-bum using his squad?
In a statement of supreme faith in the squad, each of the four matches has featured a different lineup. Only goalkeeper Song Bumkeun has been the constant presence.
This squad has been rotated well and there hasn’t been a player that has supremely missed the mark in their performances. Overall, the K League experience of the squad from the U22 rule, which requires all KLeague 1 and 2 clubs to name one U22 starter and at least one U22 bench player, has made for a squad that plays well regardless of who is on the pitch.
If I had to pick out some stars of this tournament thus far for Korea, we have to start with Cho Kyuseong and Lee Dongjun. Both forwards have 2 goals so far and have been a surprise package when most thought Jeong Wooyeong and Oh Sehun would be more productive. Lee Dong-jun is quite a handful as a RW and really has an eye for goal, while Cho Kyuseong’s ripping goal against Iran was impressive. In midfield, Lee Donggyeong and Kim Daewon have been really dangerous with their creative dribbling and ability to spread play. The K League has been on full display here as SC Freiburg’s Jeong Wooyeong, the sole European-based player, has failed to reach the heights expected of such a heralded prospect. He hasn’t been bad at all, it’s just that his teammates have been far better.
When: January 22, 8:15 AM EST/10:15 PM KST
Where: Thammasalat Stadium, Rangsit, Thailand
Broadcast Info: JTBC/JTBC3 Fox Sports, Naver TV, http://www.nene365.com/
Stakes: Winner earns a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (Korea is seeking a ninth consecutive Olympics appearance, Australia looking to return after missing out on Rio)