January is nearly upon us, which means Paulo Bento’s first competitive matches as Korea’s national team manager are fast approaching. In just 3 short weeks, the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will kick off in the UAE and the Taegeuk Warriors are currently training in Ulsan to get ready for their first match against the Philippines.
Let’s take a quick look back on the November friendlies, get updated on the recent club form of the squad, and look ahead to the Asian Cup squad announcement! To refresh the memory, here are some extended highlights packages from the Australia and Uzbekistan matches.
Hopefully those highlights get you excited for what’s to come in January at the Asian Cup. The Taegeuk Warriors will take their 6 match unbeaten streak to the UAE to try to bring home their first Asian Cup since 1960 (crazy to think that we haven’t won the Cup since then!) Paulo Bento has named an Asian-based squad to train in Ulsan through Dec. 20th, when the final Asian Cup squad will be named.
I’m going to do my best to go through this Asian-based squad and mix in the European-based players to arrive at a squad prediction! Let’s do this!
Trending Up: I think the three goalkeepers are set in stone at this point. All three are very solid goalkeepers and it doesn’t seem as though Bento is willing to test out younger keepers at a senior-level tournament just yet. Kim Jinhyeon has seen the least minutes of the three keepers under Bento but he was in the net for a solid 0-0 draw against a tough Chile side back in September. Kim Seunggyu has seen the most minutes of the three, but the last minute goal conceded to the Socceroos will certainly leave a sour taste in his mouth. Jo Hyeonwoo rebounded from a poor showing against Panama to look much more assured against Uzbekistan, even though he wasn’t tested all that often. He also finished up another strong season for Daegu FC by winning the KFA Cup and the Goalkeeper of the Year award. To be honest, it’s hard to say which way Bento is leaning for the goalkeeper position. He’s played Kim Seunggyu the most and especially against Uruguay Kim was in good form, but Bento also can’t forget Jo’s tournament heroics in Russia. I suspect the match against Saudi Arabia on New Year’s Day will give us an idea of who will be the man between the sticks in the Asian Cup.
On the Radar: While Bento has most likely decided not to test out younger goalkeepers for the future just yet, rest assured that there are a few options that we might see in the first round of World Cup Qualifying next year. Song Bumkeun (Jeonbuk Hyundai), Kim Dongjun (back in the K League 1 with Seongnam FC), Gu Sungyun (Consadole Sapporo), and Kang Hyeonmu (Pohang Steelers) are four young keepers that we should see soon.
Trending Up: Park Jooho. He has looked really great in both matches he has featured in under Bento since returning from injury. With a goal against Panama and a strong mazy run against Uzbekistan that led to a goalscoring opportunity, Naeun’s Dad (where are my TROS fans?) has shown he has plenty left in the tank. He offers a lot going forward at left back and is solid defensively. Another solid leftback returning to the fray after a long spell on the sidelines from injury is Kim Jinsu. It was a welcome sight to see Kim back in the Jeonbuk lineup at the tail end of the K League season and he’ll be looking to impress Bento in the Ulsan training camp.
At center back, we have to talk about how great a season that Jung Seunghyun is having with Kashima Antlers. He’s currently already in the UAE at the FIFA Club World Cup. At the tournament, Jung and Kashima have beaten Chivas Guadalajara, lost to Real Madrid this afternoon, and will play River Plate for 3rd place on Saturday. This is really great experience for Jung to get to test himself against such storied clubs with a continental tournament upcoming. It will be interesting to see if Bento goes with him as a starter for the Asian Cup or if he sticks with the pairing of Kim Younggwon and Kim Minjae. Park Jisoo and Kwon Kyungwon round out the centerback options. On his brief national team debut, I was impressed by how tall and imposing Park Jisoo looks! His rise with Gyeongnam FC will continue as Gyeongnam will play in the AFC Champions League next season.
Trending Down: Hong Chul. I don’t think Bento will take 3 left backs and I think that Hong should be the odd man out. Park Jooho has looked better than him recently and Kim Jinsu has in the past been a reliable option at the position for the Taegeuk Warriors.
Trending Up: Hwang Inbeom and Ju Sejong. These two looked like a solid pairing in the second half of the Australia match as well as against Uzbekistan. Hwang especially is showing that he is comfortable from a deep-lying midfield position and can also push forward on the attack. Ju right now is emerging as quite a deadball specialist and I would like to see him on free kick and corner kick duty when Ki is not on the pitch. Lee Jinhyeon had a stellar return to Pohang Steelers, helping lead them to 4th place in the K League with quite a few goals and assists. He was also in the right place to set up Suk Hyunjun for the 4th goal against Uzbekistan.
On the Bubble: Han Seunggyu, Jang Yunho, and Kim Junhyung. These three young players will be looking to impress Bento and earn a spot on the plane to the UAE. I imagine Han, the K League’s Young Player of the Year, has a reasonable shot at making the team after he was hugely instrumental in Ulsan Hyundai’s second half surge to third in the K League. I think Jang and Kim are more long shots since there are others in their positions that are more established. Since Han is an attacking midfielder I think he has the best chance to break into the squad.
Trending Down: Koo Jacheol. Bento only got to see him play for 45 minutes before he succumbed to injury against Australia, but it was pretty forgettable. The midfield looked noticeably better when Ju Sejong came on to replace him. I’m not so sure that his veteran experience will get him a spot on this squad.
Trending Up: Hwang Uijo. The man, named the KFA’s Men’s Player of the Year, is on fire and playing with bundles of confidence. His goal against Australia was no easy feat, but he took down the long ball easily and fired past Mat Ryan. Against Uzbekistan, he showed a poacher’s instinct to pounce on a loose ball off a corner. He rocketed that goal home and it’s been pleasantly surprising to see how he has built on his Asian Games breakout performance. Another Ulsan Hyundai player, Kim Insung, will join the national team after Kim Seungdae pulled out of the training camp with an injury. A right winger at Ulsan, it will be interesting if a strong camp from him will be enough to unseat someone like Moon Seonmin. Na Sangho took a bit of time to grow into the Uzbekistan match, but he really did well to help create Suk’s goal. I think he will be on the plane to the UAE.
Another young player that I think will be on the plane to the UAE is Lee Seungwoo. He was left off the squad for the trip to Australia but he has since started 3 straight matches for Hellas Verona and his contributions to Hellas’ recent upturn in form is drawing attention in the Korean media. I think he could get a recall from Bento to be a super sub X factor at the Asian Cup.
On the Bubble: Cho Youngwook. It was a bit of a shock that he made this training camp since he only played sparingly for FC Seoul during his rookie season. He has been a promising youth player for a long time and works hard as a winger/forward, but I don’t think he’s ready for the senior level just yet.
My Squad Prediction
Goalkeepers: Jo Hyeonwoo, Kim Seunggyu, Kim Jinhyeon
Defenders: Park Jooho, Kim Jinsu, Kim Younggwon, Kim Minjae, Jung Seunghyun, Park Jisoo, Lee Yong, Kim Moonhwan
Midfielders: Ki Sungyeung, Hwang Inbeom, Ju Sejong, Lee Jinhyeon, Lee Jaesung, Han Seunggyu, Lee Chungyong
Forwards: Son Heungmin, Hwang Uijo, Suk Hyunjun, Na Sangho, Lee Seungwoo
Paulo Bento and the KFA will hold a press conference to announce the squad at 2 PM KST Thursday, midnight EST. You can watch live here.
What do you think of my squad? Could it bring home the Asian Cup trophy? Let me know what you think in the comments.