Barely a year after their crushing defeat at the 2014 World Cup, the KNT embarked on a brand new journey for 2018 in World Cup Qualifying. A revamped qualifying format saw the Koreans enter far earlier in the tournament than in previous editions, and they did not disappoint.
The draw for the Second Round saw the South Koreans in Pot 1. Their opponents were Laos (Pot 5), Myanmar (Pot 4), Lebanon (Pot 3) and Kuwait (Pot 2). Although the way previous qualifying tournaments were set up meant that Korea rarely did battle with the former two nations, Lebanon and Kuwait were foes that Korea had faced before. Games against Korea are eagerly anticipated in Lebanon, who have caused us problems in the past, while Kuwait was in our group at the Asian Cup.
Too conservative against Myanmar
The first game was on the road in Thailand against a Burmese side forbidden from playing at home due to crowd issues in the previous World Cup qualification campaign. Korea lined up far too conservatively against even the tamest of buses parked. Han Kookyoung and Jung Wooyoung were both deployed in a DM role, neither of whom had games on the day. Although Jung’s form has gotten better since this match, he was woeful here. Lee Jaesung scored off of a corner and Son Heungmin’s free kick was too hot for the Burmese keeper to handle in a 2-0 victory for Korea.
Redemption in September
If against Myanmar the Taeguk Warriors were not creative enough, they redeemed themselves against Laos in an 8-0 thrashing. The secret? Not a sudden burst of creativity or skill, but rather a simple change in the personnel deployed against a team unlikely to attack. Ki Sungyueng and Kwon Changhoon were both brought in the starting eleven, which allowed to team to shape more in a 4-1-4-1 than their conventional 4-2-3-1. Suk Hyunjun scored his first goal in a KNT shirt while Son Heungmin’s paced wreaked havoc against a tired Laos side.
And finally – their first real test. No disrespect meant to Myanmar and Laos – the latter’s manager, Steve Darby, is a real, genuine human being.. the footballing world could do with more coaches that have his sense of humility, realism but enthusiasm and loyalty towards his players and his job. But the trip to Lebanon to face the Cedars would be Korea’s first challenge, a team significantly higher ranked and with more experience in WCQ. But Korea out did them too. Ki Sungyueng, Kwon Changhoon and Jung Wooyoung remained up the middle, with Koo Jacheol played out wide. Suk Hyunjun started up top again while Jang Hyunsoo interestingly played rightback. The Koreans struck first through Jang Hyunsoo from the spot. Ki played on Suk, and the Portugal-based giant was brought down by two Lebanese defenders in the box.
A few minutes later, the Koreans counter-attacked (yeah, that weird thing we never do) through Kwon Changhoon’s vertical run, and Koo Jacheol found some space in a backtracking Lebanese defense, received the pass and before he could slot the ball into the bottom corner, Lebanon’s Ali Hamam inadvertently did it for him. Kwon Changhoon completed the Korean victory with a perfectly executed touch and turn. Ki provided his first real assist of the game, but his smart passing provided the Koreans with stability all game-long. No real surprise, given his excellent form for the Koreans. A solid 3-0 victory on the road and the Koreans remained undefeated.
A stiffer test against Kuwait
With injuries to Son Heungmin and Lee Chungyong forcing the Koreans to play a slightly weaker side against Kuwait on the road, there was a whisper of concern in what should be the hardest match Korea will have to play all season, a road tie against Kuwait. Jang Hyunsoo made his second WCQ start in the RB position, while the midfield triad of Ki, Kwon and Jung remained. Koo Jacheol got his first real test playing outwide while Nam Taehee came on the other flank. Suk remained up top.
The lone goal came in the 20th minute, with Koo Jacheol heading home from a cross by Park Jooho. Perfectly read, perfectly timed run, perfect finish. the Kuwaiti defense unable to track his late run into the box. The chances really came, however, in the second half, and despite trailing, Kuwait had lots of trouble at the back as Korea kept on banging on the front door looking to get an insurance goal. Koo Jacheol was stopped not once but twice cutting in from the right flank while Suk Hyunjun was stopped point blank on a 1v1. Jung Wooyoung and Han Kookyoung took shots, the latter’s on the counter (we’re getting better at that now thank god), while Kwon Changhoon’s flick from a dangerous low cross by Jang Hyunsoo met an acrobatic save by the Kuwaiti keeper. Ah, yes, the Kuwaiti keeper – Hameed Youssef – kept the Kuwaitis in the game, though they were ultimately unable to capitalize despite a few positional errors by the Korean defense.
November – two wins again
4-0 and 5-0 routs of Myanmar and Laos aren’t much to write home about. Once again, the Koreans played a more daring game than the opener of the WCQ, with more intent and purpose in their play, while still keeping things simple and exploiting the holes against opposition.
Korea are all but through to the next round. They are a perfect 6-0-0 with 18 points.
|1||South Korea (X)||6||6||0||0||23||0||+23||18||Third round and Asian Cup||—||29 Mar ’16||24 Mar ’16||4–0||8–0|
|2||Kuwait[a] (X)||5||3||1||1||12||1||+11||10||Third round and Asian Cup ORAsian Cup qualifying third round[b]||0–1||—||0–0||9–0||24 Mar ’16|
|3||Lebanon||6||3||1||2||11||4||+7||10||Asian Cup qualifying third round||0–3||0–1||—||29 Mar ’16||7–0|
|4||Myanmar (Y)||6||1||1||4||5||20||−15||4||Asian Cup qualifying third roundOR play-off round[c]||0–2||TBD||0–2||—||3–1|
|5||Laos (Y)||7||0||1||6||3||29||−26||1||Asian Cup qualifying play-off round||0–5||0–2||0–2||2–2||—|
Kuwait are temporarily suspended from FIFA and their match against Myanmar was postponed. They are the only team who can remove Korea from the top of the group, and only if they win their next three games and Korea fail to pick up a point in their final two. An unlikely scenario.
Korea does battle with Lebanon on March 24th in Seogwipo, and then are scheduled to face Kuwait at the Sangam Stadium on March 29th. Hopefully Korea will have locked up the group before that match (notwithstanding any possible forfeits Kuwait might have to accumulate due to their suspension).
If all goes according to plan in March, Korea will have FIFA Days in June where they are not bound to the Asian Cup Qualifying (as they will have qualified for UAE 2019, since this is joint WC/AC qualifying) before returning in September 1st and 6th for the Third Round of World Cup Qualifying. 12 teams. 2 groups. 4 tickets to Russia up for grabs.
And a final shoutout to our defense – Kim Younggwon, Kwak Taehwi, Jang Hyunsoo, Kim Changsoo, Park Jooho, Kim Jinsu, all you lot. They have been perfect all year and in the WCQ’s as well. Although the opposition they have faced have not exactly been world-class, only Japan has kept a clean sheet in all of their WCQ matches.
Stielike is right to say that “expectations will only keep rising”. And that is because, for once, the KNT is entering the meat of the WCQ cycle without having screwed up beforehand.