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(News Focus) Few passing grades for S. Korea in football win over Greece

2014/03/06 14:04

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea may have defeated Greece 2-0 in their pre-World Cup match on Wednesday in Athens, but it was a misleading result that masked some of the side's problems.

And if this game was indeed the final test for players hoping to make the World Cup team -- as head coach Hong Myung-bo had often said -- then only a few players earned passing grades. Others failed spectacularly.

Forward Park Chu-young, who opened the scoring in the 17th, deserves an A, though he only played the opening half.

In his first international match in more than a year, Park played with the energy and flair that had once made him a can't-miss prospect. The goal was his first for South Korea since November 2011, and yet Park seemed as though he'd never missed a beat.

On the scoring play, Park received a Son Heung-min pass that floated over the Greeks as he sprinted toward the net, through an opening between two defenders. Park then let the ball bounce once inside the box and struck it past the goalkeeper Panagiotis Glykos.

Park demonstrated poise and opportunistic instinct that had been largely missing from other South Koreans assigned to the striker position under Hong. Before Park, lanky forward Kim Shin-wook had been the only striker to have scored for Hong in the previous 13 matches.

South Korean forward Park Chu-young (R) celebrates with his teammate Lee Chung-yong after scoring the opening goal in the country's 2-0 win over Greece in Athens on March 5, 2014. (Yonhap)

South Korean forward Park Chu-young (R) celebrates with his teammate Lee Chung-yong after scoring the opening goal in the country's 2-0 win over Greece in Athens on March 5, 2014. (Yonhap)

Minutes before that goal, Park also set up wide-open midfielder Lee Chung-yong for a one-on-one against Glykos, who stepped up to deny what appeared to be a sure goal.

Park, who has had an on-and-off relationship with media, declined to speak to reporters on Wednesday, despite prodding from officials of the Korea Football Association (KFA). Hong, though, had some positive things to say about the player, and praised Park's ability to fit in seamlessly with the team despite his long absence.

Kim Dae-gil, an analyst for the cable station KBS N, said he saw Park's "killer instinct" against Greece.

"Park showed good chemistry with teammates like (midfielders) Lee Chung-yong, Son Heung-min and Koo Ja-cheol," Kim noted. "And that's an encouraging development ahead of the World Cup."

   For most of the past three seasons, Park had been confined to the bench with Arsenal in the English Premier League. Hong, upon taking the reins last summer, declared at the onset that he wouldn't call up players who aren't getting regular action with their respective clubs.

Park had been a prized pupil for Hong when the coach had earlier guided the under-23 squad at the 2010 Asian Games and the 2012 Summer Olympics. At both events, Park had been one of the overage players, commonly called "wild cards," and responded with crucial goals.

Yet Hong's hands were tied with Park unable to get out of Arsene Wenger's doghouse in Arsenal. Park finally got his "Get Out of Jail Free" card late January, when he was loaned to second-division English side Watford, moments before the winter transfer window closed.

Park, 28, has yet to see much action with his new club, but will likely play more minutes than he ever did for Arsenal. The transaction also allowed Hong to shift slightly from his stance, and the coach defended his selection of Park by saying he wanted at least one more look at the player before the World Cup in June.

When Hong came calling, Park responded with a goal and in the process turned back the clock to August 2012. With Hong on the bench at the London Olympics, Park scored the opening goal in South Korea's 2-0 win over Japan for the bronze medal, the country's first Olympic medal in football.

Son, who assisted on Park's goal, scored one himself about 10 minutes into the second half. Even before the Greece match, the Bayer Leverkusen winger had been a fixture on the national team since last year and as a rising star in the Bundesliga, Son's chances of making the World Cup roster had hardly been in doubt.

Still, the 21-year-old needed to display more consistency. Son's five previous international goals had come against comparatively weak opponents, such as India, Qatar, Haiti and Mali, and he had been on occasion invisible against other teams. The goal against Greece, a thunderous left-foot strike to the top shelf on a breakaway, should further cement Son's case for the big tournament.

Son did speak to the press after the game and said he was happy to have played a major role in the "feel-good" victory.

"It was an easy game to play because everyone on our team played well," he said. "Park Chu-young played for the first time in a while and I am glad I set up his goal. I want to become a player who can blend in with the rest of the team, rather than someone who seeks personal glory."

   Other offensive players, such as midfielders Koo Ja-cheol and Lee Chung-yong, put in solid efforts on both ends. They created chances offensively and their effective forechecking put consistent pressure on Greek ball carriers.

Despite keeping Greece off the score sheet, the defense left much to be desired.

Goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong got more help from the goal post and the crossbar -- every keeper's best friends -- than from his own teammates.

The usually reliable central defenders, Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon, were playing in their eighth match together on Hong Myung-bo's watch, and had easily their worst one as a duo. The two 24-year-olds consistently missed coverage deep in their own zone, and inexplicably stood around and watched as Greece was trying to create opportunities out of broken plays.

Such defensive woes might lead to South Korea's early elimination from the World Cup if these players don't address them in a hurry.

Hong Myung-bo, himself a former member of the backline, defended the two players after the game.

"I don't think they gave up too many opportunities," the coach said. "This match must have been a good experience for our young defenders."

   Kim Dae-gil, the KBS N analyst, agreed with Hong that the defenders didn't play a bad game but seemed to lose their concentration at crucial moments.

"There were several occasions where our players outnumbered the opponents and were still exposed badly in their own zone," he said. "They didn't put themselves in right places and had a difficultly predicting direction or speed of passes. This team will need more organization in set pieces."

   Jung, the No. 1 goalkeeper during the 2010 World Cup, has gradually lost his grip on the position as Kim Seung-gyu, six years his junior at 23, has made strides with strong play for his club.

Kim, however, hasn't been able to snatch the job away from Jung in recent international contests. That Hong went with Jung on Wednesday for a match of this magnitude suggests the veteran may retain the No. 1 job after all.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

(END)

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