(News Focus) S. Korea remains work in progress after two football friendlies
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 11 (Yonhap) -- After splitting its two friendly matches this month, South Korean national football team showed it remains a work in progress.
South Korea defeated Haiti 4-1 last Friday but lost to Croatia 2-1 on Tuesday. And as with most other sports, the final scores in football don't always tell the full story.
Head coach Hong Myung-bo said the Haiti match was the worst game in his three-month tenure. That says a lot about the team's performance in that game, because South Korea had managed only three scoreless draws and one loss under Hong prior to facing Haiti.
After losing to Croatia, Hong praised his players for their relentless play in the second half. The slim, one-goal margin, however, masked defensive woes that directly led to both Croatian goals.
Before the two matches, Hong called up Europe-based stars for the first time. In his earlier games in July and August, he chose to employ only the players from South Korean, Japanese and Chinese leagues, as those in European leagues were getting ready for the start of new seasons.
For the September matches, Hong brought in the likes of Son Heung-min, a dynamic scorer for Bayer Leverkusen, and Lee Chung-yong, a savvy midfielder for Bolton Wanderers. Their presence raised hopes that South Korea would snap its winless skid and take a big step forward in its preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The team did earn the win over Haiti, but Hong came down hard on his midfielders for their inability to control the offensive pace against the underdog. Haiti is ranked 74th, 18 spots lower than South Korea.
Two of the four goals came on second-half penalties, and even the staunchest apologists for South Korea had to admit the home team got some favorable calls from referees.
One Haiti player was sent off early in the second half for his second yellow of the match. Overall, Haiti was tagged with five yellow cards. Hong admitted that his team "played too loosely" after Haiti went down a man.
Before facing the eighth-ranked Croatia, Hong stressed the need to shore up midfield play, saying how the team does in the area will determine its fate at the World Cup.
South Korean football players walk off the field after losing to Croatia 2-1 in their friendly match in Jeonju, South Korea, on Sept. 10, 2013. (Yonhap)
In Tuesday's match, though, it was Croatia that dominated the middle early. South Korea barely mounted any attack in the opening 45 minutes, as Croatians consistently outnumbered their opponents and foiled offensive build-ups with effective forechecking.
Hong noted, however, that his team played fairly evenly in the second half, despite giving up two goals.
"I think this was a good experience for our players," the coach said. "I'd like to praise them for never giving up until the end. Our midfielders did their job in the second half."
Hong pointed out that despite missing some key players, such as Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic and Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, Croatia was still a much tougher opponent than Haiti. It made South Koreans' second-half efforts that much more commendable, the coach added.
Hong, once a defensive stalwart for South Korea, said he was disappointed with his defenders. On both of Croatian goals, South Koreans suffered lapses of concentration in their coverage.
Defensive back Domagoi Vida scored the first goal on a diving header following a free kick, and he was unchallenged by midfielder Han Kook-young trailing on the play. On the next goal, forward Nikola Kalinic charged in from the penalty spot unmarked and beat defender Yun Suk-young to the cross that he headed in for the eventual winner.
South Korea had a few chances to score before Vida's opening goal, which Hong said shifted the momentum in Croatia's favor.
"Giving up the first goal on a set piece took the wind out of our sails," Hong said. "On the second goal, we got caught out of position in the box."
Shin Moon-sun, a former TV analyst and currently a professor of sports statistical analysis, said defensive players appeared to have run out of gas before Croatian goals. Shin opined that Hong should have made substitutions on defense at some point in the second half.
Shin also said defensive backs should improve their passing game.
"Croatian players were consistently making passes into open space, but our players weren't able to do the same," he said. "Defenders must be more accurate with their passes."
More pressing concern for Hong, however, is on offense. He has been using multiple players at the striker position, from domestic league scorers like Kim Dong-seob and Cho Dong-geon to English Premier League player Ji Dong-won. None of them has found the back of the net.
Cho, who started against Croatia as the featured striker, was virtually invisible in his 45 minutes of action and was replaced to start the second half without registering a shot on net.
The exasperated Hong said he wasn't certain when the conundrum on the striker position will be resolved.
"Someone will have to fill that role, and I still have a few players in mind," Hong said. "I have to keep trying. The door is open to everyone, be it a young player or a veteran."
One player who could make life easier for Hong is Park Chu-young. The talented striker has netted 23 goals in 61 international matches for the country, but the 28-year-old has largely been a forgotten man since joining Arsenal two years ago.
Park has appeared in just one Premier League match for Arsenal and spent the last season on loan to Celta Vigo in Spain. After a mediocre season in Spain, Park returned to Arsenal, but has yet to suit up for the London club in the current season.
Hong, who will travel to England this month to watch Park and other South Koreans there, said he hasn't thought about naming Park to the national team for South Korea's matches against Brazil and Mali in October.
Hong has often stressed that he would rather not select players who aren't getting much action on their respective clubs. He once said Park needs to first land in a club that will give him a chance to play regularly before he's considered for a spot on the national team.
The transfer windows for summer have been closed in European leagues, meaning Park will have to wait until the winter transfer period in January next year. He's under contract with Arsenal until June 2014.