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(News Focus) S. Korea football coach still in hot water despite win over Syria

2017/03/29 11:48

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, March 29 (Yonhap) -- Despite a victory over Syria, South Korea football coach Uli Stielike still seems to be in hot water as critics keep questioning his tactics and overall performance of the men's national team.

South Korea squeezed out a tight 1-0 victory over Syria in Seoul on Tuesday in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Although the Taeguk Warriors earned three points and stayed alive in the World Cup qualification race, local football fans are still calling on Stielike to resign.

With only three matches remaining in the World Cup qualifying campaign, South Korea secured their No. 2 spot in Group A, where they are competing against Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, China and Qatar.

South Korea have 13 points from four wins, one draw and two losses, four points behind the leaders Iran and one point above No. 3 Uzbekistan. Only the top two teams in the group directly advance to the World Cup in Russia, while the third-place team must go through playoff rounds to enter the world football's showpiece event.

South Korean men's national football team head coach Uli Stielike watches his players during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier between South Korea and Syria at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean men's national football team head coach Uli Stielike watches his players during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier between South Korea and Syria at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

After suffering a stunning 1-0 defeat to China last Thursday, Stielike needed to rebound. And the German coach said he would consider making changes to ensure better performances the rest of the final round.

Against Syria, Stielike did make some tactical changes. He started FC Red Bull Salzburg forward Hwang Hee-chan for the first time in the final round. In the midfield, he put captain Ki Sung-yueng as the lone anchorman in front of the back four and deployed Koh Myong-jin as the right-sided midfielder.

It was a 4-1-4-1 formation that Stielike opted for facing a defensive-minded Syria. Stielike had been predominantly using a 4-2-3-1 system since he took the helm of the team in September 2014.

"I put Koh on the right flank because he is a left-footed midfielder," Stielike said Tuesday after the match. "I thought he could cut back inside and feed Hwang, who can run into open space behind defenders."

   Koh's shift, however, didn't last long. As Syria started to move forward after the first 30 minutes, Stielike ordered Koh to go back to central midfield and be a partner to Ki. Suddenly, South Korea were back to their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, which became even more clear after Koh was replaced by defensive midfielder Han Kook-young.

"We tried to make Syria confused about our tactics," he said. "I was criticized for not making tactical changes, but now it seems I'm getting criticized for making changes."

   South Korea did get an early lead as Hong Jeong-ho scored with his left foot following a Son Heung-min corner in the fourth minute. But it turned out to be the only goal of the match.

South Korea have yet to earn a comfortable victory at home in the final round. They previously beat China and Qatar by scores of 3-2, and edged out Uzbekistan 2-1.

South Korean men's national football team players celebrate after defeating Syria in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean men's national football team players celebrate after defeating Syria in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

Even Stielike said his side was helped by some luck in Tuesday's victory. South Korea nearly blew a chance at three points when Syrian forward Firas Alkhatib's left-footed attempt hit the bar in second-half extra time. Then it was slightly humiliating afterward when South Korean goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae had to bear a yellow card in stoppage time for delaying his goal kick in attempt to eke out the victory.

For South Korean fans, it wasn't a satisfying performance considering South Korea's status in Asian football. South Korea sit 55 spots above Syria in the FIFA rankings at 40th, and they are looking for their ninth consecutive World Cup appearance. Syria, who can't even play at home due to an ongoing civil war, have never appeared at the top FIFA competition yet.

Against Syria, South Korea led in almost all statistical categories, including ball possession rate, number of shots taken and shots on target. But the players lacked delicate touches as they produced only one goal from 13 shots. Stielike also lamented that some players were giving up the ball too easily and failed to finish.

"For today, I think some of our players didn't show their best performance," he said. "But we always try to become a better team. We will have to make improvements in our combination plays and make sure that we can finish our attacks with a shot."

   Ki said the players are the main culprit for the poor performance, not Stielike's tactics.

"The coach prepared for this match a lot, and he told the players what to do, but we just couldn't execute it," the Swansea City midfielder said. "If we keep playing like this, we will always have problems whoever the national team boss is."

   Ki, who has 91 caps for South Korea, even lashed out at his teammates, urging that they need to make improvements.

"As a captain, I have always tried to boost confidence of our young players on the squad, but I have to think about that again," he said. "Some of the players just couldn't keep the possession and gave up the ball, and those things should not happen on the national team."

  

South Korean men's national football team captain Ki Sung-yueng (R) passes the ball against Syrian players during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier between South Korea and Syria at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean men's national football team captain Ki Sung-yueng (R) passes the ball against Syrian players during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier between South Korea and Syria at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul on March 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

South Korea will next face Qatar in Doha on June 13. They also have to host Iran in August and face Uzbekistan on the road in September to conclude the World Cup qualification.

Stielike said the situations will improve because they now have time to reorganize and fix their problems. The Korea Football Association (KFA) said it plans to set up a friendly match before taking on Qatar, so that the players can tune up before going to Doha.

But what really concerns local fans is that South Korea have yet to score or win away from home. The KFA's technical committee will examine South Korea's performance in the two recent World Cup qualifiers and present its evaluation to Stielike later.

"If the KFA wants to sack Stielike, this is the last opportunity to do so, because South Korea will not have time when they enter the stretch of three consecutive matches in June," said Hahn June-hea, a football commentator for local broadcasting station KBS. "From now on, another loss means South Korea will have difficulty reaching the World Cup, so there should be significant improvements both from the coach and the players."

   kdon@yna.co.kr

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