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S. Korean coach Hong virtually settled on starting lineup vs. Japan
PAJU, South Korea, July 26 (Yonhap) -- After fiddling with his lineup in the first two games of the East Asian Cup tournament, South Korean men's football head coach Hong Myung-bo said Friday he has virtually settled on his starting 11 for the finale against Japan.

   South Korea will take on Japan at 8 p.m. in Seoul for the teams' final game at the regional tournament. South Korea had a 0-0 tie against Australia last Saturday, and for a game against China on Wednesday, Hong replaced nine starters from the earlier match. The game also ended in a scoreless tie.

   In this round-robin tournament so far, Japan leads the competition with four points with one win and one draw, followed by South Korea with two points. China and Australia each have one point, and they will meet at 5:15 p.m. in Seoul on Sunday for their final match.

   Before his team's practice at the National Football Center (NFC) here in Paju, north of Seoul, Hong told reporters that he has almost made up his mind on the lineup against Japan.

   "I will finalize the lineup after watching the practice for the next two days," Hong said. "Anytime the two countries collide, it draws a lot of national interest. This will not be an easy match and we need to prepare the best we can."

   Hong was short-handed for the East Asian Cup, with European clubs under no obligation to release their internationals for the event. The coach picked players from leagues in South Korea, Japan and China, hoping to give some young players a chance to play international matches in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

   South Korea leads the all-time series against Japan with 40 wins, 13 losses and 22 ties, but Japan has held the upper hand recently. In their last meeting in Sapporo in August 2011, Japan humbled South Korea 3-0.

   At the East Asian Cup under way here, Japan was held to a 3-3 draw by China in last Sunday's opener, and squeaked past Australia 3-2 on Thursday.

   Against China, Japan led 3-1 with about 10 minutes to go before allowing China to score two late goals. Then against Australia, Japan was up 2-0 and gave up two quick second-half goals, before getting the winner with 11 minutes left.

   Alberto Zaccheroni, the head coach of Japan, completely overhauled his lineup from the first game to the next one, in an apparent attempt to give his top players some rest before facing South Korea.

   Hong said South Korea needs to keep Japanese forwards at bay while trying to capitalize on their sloppy defense.

   "On offense, they created opportunities with some smart and creative plays," Hong said. "But their defenders suffered momentary lapses of concentration. Their overall organization isn't too bad but they've given up a lot of goals."

   South Korea has yet to score a goal in this tournament. Hong said the inability to score must be addressed but playing steady defense is more important in preparation for the World Cup.

   Hong also rejected the popular notion that he was merely using the East Asian Cup to test his young players.

   "I merely played the guys that I felt were in the best shape on that given day," Hong said. "The 23 players on our team are all capable of playing. I made the decision (to replace nine starters) to give players some rest."