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S. Korea recalls stars playing overseas for football friendly vs. Croatia
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- English Premier League midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and Germany-based youngster Son Heung-min headlined the South Korean football roster finalized Monday for an upcoming friendly against Croatia.

   The Korea Football Association (KFA) unveiled the 24-man lineup with a strong overseas flavor, with 13 of those players currently either playing outside of South Korea or soon set to join a new foreign club.

   South Korea will face Croatia on Feb. 6 at Craven Cottage in London, home of the Premier League club, Fulham FC. It will be South Korea's first international match of 2013.

   The game will kick off at 2:05 p.m. local time, and 11:05 p.m. in South Korea. It will be South Korea's final friendly match before the ongoing Asian qualifying tournament for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil resumes in March.

   Ki is enjoying a fine first season in England with Swansea City as a strong defensive presence in midfield who also contributes on the offensive end.

   Son, 20, has scored six goals so far this season for Hamburger SV in the top German league, Bundesliga, to rank second on the team. Two fellow Bundesliga players, FC Augsburg teammates Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won, also made the South Korean team.

   Ji is on the national team for the first time since last May. On Sunday, he made his debut with Augsburg after a move from Sunderland in England, where he had been mostly confined to the bench.

   They will be joined in midfield by Lee Chung-yong of Bolton Wanderers and Kim Bo-kyung of Cardiff City, both from England's second division.

   On defense, South Korea will carry two players plying their trade in Qatar, Lee Jung-soo and Kim Kee-hee, as well as Kwak Tae-hwi, who recently reached a deal with a Saudi Arabian club, Al-Shabab.

   The KFA named two forwards from the domestic K League Classic, Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Kim Shin-woo of Ulsan Hyundai Tigers, and a third from Spain, Park Chu-young of Celta Vigo.

   For friendlies or World Cup qualifiers, South Korea typically names about a dozen players from overseas leagues. But when it lost to Australia 2-1 at home last November in its last international match of 2012, South Korea had a team made up entirely of K League Classic players, as head coach Choi Kang-hee sought to test domestic players who could join the national team for future matches.

   For the Croatian match, Choi elected to go with overseas-based players again. Most European and Middle Eastern leagues are in the midst of their seasons, and players have already had a few games under their belt, whereas the K League Classic won't start their season until March.

   Through the KFA, Choi said he hopes to carry essentially the same lineup for the four remaining World Cup qualifying matches.

   "I don't think there will be too many changes to the roster for the remainder of the World Cup qualification," Choi said. "Three of our final four games will be at home, and we absolutely have to win at home."

   South Korea is seeking its eighth consecutive appearance in the World Cup and its ninth overall, but the road to Brazil is expected to be quite bumpy.

   After four games in Group A, South Korea sits in second place with seven points with two wins, one loss and one draw, one point behind the leader Uzbekistan, which has played five games. South Korea is tied with Iran in points but remains ahead on a superior goal difference.

   Only the top two nations from the group earn automatic berths at the World Cup. The two third-place teams will meet in a playoff for the right to compete in an intercontinental playoff against a South American opponent.

   South Korea's next opponents are: Qatar at home on March 26, Lebanon on the road on June 4, Uzbekistan at home on June 11 and finally, Iran at home on June 18.

   South Korea was held to a 2-2 draw by Uzbekistan in September and then lost 1-0 to Iran in Tehran the following month. Choi said the defeat on the road has left "little breathing room" for South Korea.

   "We have to find the right combinations on offense," Choi said. "When teams face us at our home, they will most likely sit back on defense and look to launch counterattacks. We have to be able to break down their defense and score early in the game."

   Choi said Croatia will be a "very good test" for South Korea before the World Cup qualifiers. Croatia is ranked 10th in the world, 24 spots higher than South Korea on the FIFA table.

   "Croatia is a strong team and will be a great opponent for us in a friendly," Choi said. "It is not going to be an easy match for us. We will have to test our defensive unit and fiddle with our offense by putting in players from Europe. We will try to prepare the best we can for the World Cup qualifier against Qatar in March."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr
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