S. Korea meet China in World Cup qualification amid high tensions
By Joo Kyung-don
SEOUL, March 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will resume their qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup this week as they take on China on the road amid growing tensions between two countries.
The Group A match in the final Asian qualification round for the 2018 World Cup will kick off Thursday at 7:35 p.m. (local time) at Helong Stadium in Changsha, south central China.
South Korea and China are also grouped with Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Syria. Only the top two teams directly advance to the World Cup in Russia, while the third-place team must go through playoff rounds to enter the quadrennial event.
At the halfway point, South Korea have 10 points with three wins, one draw and one loss. They are one point behind the group leader Iran with three wins and two draws.
China are the only team in Group A without a win, as they're ranked last with two draws and three losses.
A Chinese police officer watches a training session of the South Korean national football team at Hunan Provincial People's Stadium in Changsha, China, on March 20, 2017, three days ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier between South Korea and China. (Yonhap)
The two sides will clash amid growing tensions between their governments over the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. In what appear to be retaliatory actions over South Korea's decision to install the U.S. anti-missile system, China has banned sales of South Korea-related tour packages and cracked down on business operations of some South Korean companies.
Concerned about possible hate crimes against South Koreans, the Korea Football Association (KFA) asked its Chinese counterpart to designate a zone for visiting supporters and increase the number of security personnel.
South Korea head coach Uli Stielike previously said his players will try not to be influenced by the recent atmosphere, and will instead focus on what's happening on the pitch.
Stielike's side will aim to open 2017 with a victory. Depending on the result, South Korea could fall down to third place in the group since Uzbekistan currently have nine points from three wins and two losses.
History shows South Korea are the favorites. The Taeguk Warriors boast a dominant head-to-head record against China, with 18 wins, 12 draws and one loss.
South Korea, however, had a nail-biting 3-2 win against China at home in the opening match of the final World cup qualifying round last September, their most recent meeting. South Korea nearly blew a 3-0 lead by giving up two goals in the second half to China at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
South Korea have yet to score away from home in the final round. They were held to a scoreless draw by Syria and suffered a 1-0 loss to Iran last year.
Against China, Stielike's team will have to play without familiar faces on the flanks. Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son Heung-min is suspended due to yellow card accumulation, while Crystal Palace midfielder Lee Chung-yong, who scored a goal in the previous meeting in September, wasn't even selected after missing club action for more than a month.
FC Augsburg's Ji Dong-won and Koo Ja-cheol are likely to lead the team's attack as both players perform regularly with the German Bundesliga club. Strikers Lee Jeong-hyeop and Hwang Hee-chan are also in fine form as they both scored goals over the weekend for their clubs.
Another positive note for South Korea is that team captain Ki Sung-yueng is back from a knee injury and played with his English Premier League club Swansea City on Saturday.
Three South Korean defenders -- Kim Kee-hee, Hong Jeong-ho, and Jang Hyun-soo -- and defensive midfielder Jung Woo-young play in the Chinese Super League. Except Hong, most of them are bench members on their respective clubs, but the players claimed they are confident of playing against Chinese forwards like Wu Lei and Gao Lin.
South Korean men's national team players train at Hunan Provincial People's Stadium in Changsha, China, on March 20, 2017, three days ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier between South Korea and China. (Yonhap)
China are expected to show an upgraded performance compared to the previous meeting under new manager Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the FIFA World Cup title in 2006. The former Juventus coach took over the Chinese national team in October after guiding Guangzhou Evergrande to three domestic league titles and the Asian Football Confederation Champions League crown.
The 68-year-old Italian has named seven players from defending Chinese league champions and his former club Guangzhou. Players like Feng Xiaoting and Huang Bowen are especially familiar with South Korean football, as both them had stints in the K League Classic, South Korea's top-tier pro football league.