Game 7 of 8 comes on Tuesday in Seoul. Korea’s position remains uncomfortably close in terms of qualification following the 1-1 draw in Beirut. Korea currently tops the groups (on goal difference) over Uzbekistan, but it would be foolish to think that Korea has anything wrapped up. The only positive (if you even consider it one, which I don’t) is that Korea is at least assured of the playoff spot. A difficult challenge in which Korea would face a two legged tie against the Group B 3rd place time (currently Australia) and then the winner would play the 5th placed South American team (currently Venezuela). So, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
The Last Match
The two sides met back on Matchday 3 of the round in Tashkent. A 2-2 draw was the result with set-pieces and own goals being the theme. Ki Sung-Yueng scored the first own goal, from a Uzbek set piece. Uzbekistan returned the favor shortly before the break with another own goal. Lee Dong-Gook put Korea in front briefly before Uzbekistan leveled the score once again through another set piece. The game was fairly back and forth, with Uzbekistan controlling the match early. Then Korea took the reigns for the latter stages of the first half. The second half, after the scores leveled again, was a bit slower.
Mass changes are expected following the disappointing 1-1 draw with Lebanon. If reports are to be believed, Choi Kang-Hee has decided on a 4-4-2 formation, and seems to have a defensive line and midfield set. The question seems to be how he will line-up the attack. Early in the weekend there were injury concerns for Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong. Son hurt his leg in a challenge with Jung In-Hwan, and was down for several minutes before limping off. While Lee picked up a knee injury. Lee was the more serious concern as he subsequently missed the Saturday training sessions for therapy, but returned on Sunday to take part in the exercises. Barring any additional knocks or setbacks both should be fit and ready for Tuesday.
Initial reports were that he was favoring a Kim Shin-Wook, Son Heung-Min partnership. But later reports indicated he was also tinkering with a, gulp, Kim Shin-Wook and Lee Dong-Gook partnership (Son Heung-Min slid over the the wide left position). Choi’s defensive line would seem have two new faces in Kim Chang-Soo (in for Shin Kwang-Hoon) and Kim Young-Kwon (in for Kim Ki-Hee), with Kwak Tae-Hwi and Kim Chi-Woo retaining their places. The midfield would see Lee Chung-Yong and Kim Nam-Il keep their places, with Park Jong-Woo taking over for Han Kook-Young. The left midfield would seem to either be Lee Keun-Ho (if Choi goes Kim-Son attack) or Son Heung-Min (if Choi goes Kim-Lee attack). Unfortunately, Kim Bo-Kyung would seem to be the odd man out as Choi now apparently sees him as a central attacking midfielder (which does not exist in the 4-4-2).
Choi’s favored formation would appear to look something like this:
If this is indeed what Choi will send out on Tuesday, I fear we will see much of the same from last week. On paper it is a 4-4-2, but I suspect it would end up operating similar to the 4-2-3-1 that we saw against Lebanon as one of either Kim Shin-Wook or Son Heung-Min would likely be asked to drop deep either to pick up the ball (Son) or knock it on to the other or wide (Kim). Park Jong-Woo is probably the slightly better option in central midfield as he is more of a box-to-box, high energy player so he offers something ever so slightly different from Kim Nam-Il and Han Kook-Young. The worry for Park is that he is told to sit deeper and essentially act as a holder as he often is. Lee Keun-Ho is another slight worry for me. While he is talented, I don’t feel he really fits that well with this system as a wide left midfielder. He did strike up a nice partnership with Kim Shin-Wook at UIsan, but I feel that he and Son Heung-Min are too similar in their playing styles and will end up getting in each other’s way (think Iniesta and Fabregas when they play together at Barcelona). Lee is not a left footed player, so I think he’ll want to drift inside.
Defensively, Kim Chang-Soo makes sense as Shin Kwang-Hoon was quite poor last time out. My concern about Kim Chang-Soo is that he’s not particularly quick, so I fear he could get burned easily and often down his side. I would have rather seen Kim Young-Kwon come in for Kwak Tae-Hwi, but that was never going to happen under Choi. I’m slightly surprised that Kim Chi-Woo is tipped to keep his spot, and suspect it’s likely a reward for his goal.
Call ups for the match.
Few players on the Uzbekistan national team will be familiar, but there is one player that K League followers should recognize, and that is midfielder Server Djeparov. Djeparov is currently playing for Seongnam Ilhwa, and has had two separate spells with FC Seoul. Djeparov is also a former two-time AFC Player of the Year. But, as we’ve seen in the past, a lack of name-brand players does not mean an easy task.
Uzbekistan sits level on points with us (11 points) but has a goal difference of +2, which is why we are top and they are second. Uzbekistan has only lost one time, their first game against Iran (Iran won 1-0 in Tashkent). Uzbekistan has two draws, the 2-2 with us and a 1-1 with Lebanon. Their three wins are all 1-0 wins over Iran (away), Lebanon (home), and Qatar (away). Uzbekistan’s most recent match was a friendly against China where they won 2-1.
The picture to qualification is a bit clearer now. The ideal result would be a win over Uzbekistan and an Iranian loss. This combo would see Korea secure one of the two automatic spots as Iran could not catch up in the final weekend (+4 on points). A Korea win and Iranian draw would almost assure Korea of an automatic spot as Korea would have a three point gap and a significant goal difference advantage. However, Iran (who is playing Lebanon) will likely win their game, so if both teams win, Korea would still be in a good position going into the final day, as they would have a three point lead over Uzbekistan (and a significant goal difference).
Should Korea and Uzbekistan draw again, then a new world of possibilities emerge. An Iranian win would see Iran go top, and Korea second (on goal difference over Uzbekistan). If all three draw, then things stay the same as they are now. A Korea-Uzbekistan draw coupled with an Iranian loss, would see Korea maintain a slight advantage, but not any more than we currently enjoy. Korea would still be level on points with Uzbekistan, and there would be a two point gap with Iran. However, the results on the final day would still be the same as they are now. An Iranian win would see them move above us, while a draw or Korean win would suffice.
The worst possible scenario would, of course, be a loss to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan would go top with a three points advantage. That with an Iran win would see Korea drop to 3rd (two points behind Iran). An Iran draw would see Korea and Iran go level on points, but Korea would maintain a slight advantage through goal difference (unless Uzbekistan absolutely hammers us, like 5-0). If Korea and Iran both lose than It’s a straight battle for 2nd pretty much. Korea would need to win or draw with Iran on the final round to keep the automatic spot.
Final Thoughts and Predictions
This match is a bit worrying because of the string of poor performances (regardless of the end result) that the team has put in, and Uzbekistan’s relative strength. Being Seoul should help a bit, but as the Qatar match showed, home advantage isn’t a given. If Choi starts the XI that the press is saying he will, than the key player will certainly be Son Heung-Min. I think the rest will perform as expected (for better or worse), but Son is the wild card of sorts. If he can find space and figure out how to work with Kim Shin-Wook he could be a game changer and finally perform for Korea like he has for Hamburg.
Despite all my hopes, I don’t expect to see any major improvements from the team compared to the last outing. I still expect plenty of frustrations and disappointments. Hopefully, the team will be able to pull it together enough to get all 3 points and take some of the pressure off of the last match against Iran.
Game Time and Reminders
South Korea vs Uzbekistan, Tuesday, June 11, 8PM at Seoul World Cup Stadium [7AM in the US / Eastern Standard Time]
T.V. KBS in Korea, One World Sports in US.
Internet: (don’t quote us, but One World Sports online should be streaming this).
I will once again be live-tweeting the match, so you can follow @SKSBlog if you want some in-match commentary or to vent/talk about what you see.