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(News Focus) Winless S. Korea still shows promise at East Asian Cup
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korean men's national football team ended the East Asian Cup football tournament with a crushing 2-1 defeat to Japan on Sunday, with Yoichiro Kakitani's winner coming during the final moments of the taut showdown.

   South Korea was winless in the tournament, earlier playing back-to-back 0-0 draws against Australia and China.

   South Korea finished third among the four participants, but not all was lost for the team as its young players showed enough promise to generate optimism about the team's future.

   The East Asian Cup matches were not FIFA-protected, which meant European clubs, preparing for their new seasons starting next month, were under no obligation to release their Asian players for the event.

   It handcuffed the new South Korean head coach, Hong Myung-bo, who took over the national team in June. He was forced to build his 23-man roster with players from leagues in South Korea, Japan and China, where teams are still in the midst of their seasons.

   Leading into the tournament, Hong said he wanted to give some young, untested players a chance to prove their worth. He added he hoped to set up a healthy competition for playing time between them and the more established stars from Europe ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.


Though he never said it as much, Hong appeared more intent on finding diamonds in the rough than trying to win the tournament.

   As far as discovering new talent, Hong, who insisted he was taking a long-term view on the national team, enjoyed some success.

   Midfielder Yun Il-lok scored South Korea's only goal of the tournament, netting an equalizer against Japan in the first half of Sunday's game. In the team's opener against Australia, the 21-year-old midfielder for FC Seoul was a one-man wrecking crew on offense. He could have scored more than one goal had he shown more polish in his finish.

   Yun was one of two players, along with goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong, to start all three games for South Korea. For the team's second contest against China, Hong replaced nine starters from the first match, except for Yun and Jung.

   Yun started all three matches on the left wing of midfield, but he didn't just stay on that side of the pitch, flying down the right on one play and trying to set up opportunities up the middle on the next.

   When Hong coached the South Korean Olympic squad last year, Yun didn't survive the final roster cut, but he more than redeemed himself at the East Asian Cup, his first senior international event.

   South Korea is scheduled to host Peru in a friendly on Aug. 14. Hong said Sunday he will once again have to rely heavily on domestic players, and Yun will likely be among the carryovers from the East Asian Cup.

   After the Japan match, Yun said he was happy to have scored his first international goal but was in no mood to celebrate because the team lost.

   He also said he knows what he needs to work on for the future.

   "I am grateful that I got to play so much," he said. "I had my share of chances but I couldn't convert them and the team didn't win any games. I must improve my conditioning and my shooting."

   On defense, left fullback Kim Jin-su emerged as a promising new face. Like Yun, Kim made his international debut at the tournament, but if he had been nervous, the 21-year-old didn't show it in his two starts.

   The opener against Australia was his breakout game. He generated plenty of offense from the left side and his looping throw-ins added a new dimension to the team's attacks while befuddling the opposing defense. Kim served as the team's designated kicker on corners and free kicks, too.

   Kim was the latest player to audition for the left fullback position on the national team, trying to fill the void created when Lee Young-pyo, a veteran of three World Cups and 127 international matches, retired from the national team in early 2011. A handful of players have shown flashes of brilliance before fading away, but Kim's poise and versatility on both ends make him worthy of a long look.

   None of the youngsters, however, could cure South Korea's epidemic failure to score.

   Hong, the head coach, said Sunday he was pleased with how his players created opportunities on offense. However, that was as far as they went -- teasing and tantalizing the crowds with some fine passes deep in the opposing zone, only to draw exasperated "aahs" with their inability to finish what they had started.

   Against Australia and Japan, Kim Dong-sub started as the featured striker. Against China, Seo Dong-hyeon assumed the role. Kim Shin-wook, a third forward on the team, entered the first and the last games as a second-half substitute.

   Kim Dong-sub and Seo were virtually invisible up front, as midfielders like Yun, Go Yo-han and Lee Seung-gi were more active on offense. When Kim Shin-wook entered the games, he disrupted the offensive rhythm -- midfielders suddenly stopped making passes through tight spaces and began sending in long crosses for the 196-centimeter forward, in hopes that Kim would somehow beat out multiple defenders to gain possession.

   Hong, the head coach, admitted on Sunday that Kim made the rest of the team resort to a "long ball" style of play and his presence was detrimental to what the team was trying to accomplish.

   "Once Kim Shin-wook took the field, our players unconsciously started playing long ball," Hong said. "We are capable of doing better in creating opportunities. That is why I only put in Kim late in the games."


Shin Moon-sun, a former television analyst, was more direct in his assessment of the South Korean forwards.

   "Forwards are there to score goals," said Shin, who now teaches sports statistical analysis at a local university. "South Korea dominated possession in all three games and yet failed to score much, because the offensive players just don't have much talent."

   Shin opined that South Korea will have to look to its Europe-based players for offense in future matches, when they are available.

   Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen in Germany is a prime candidate to start as a striker for South Korea at next year's World Cup. He scored a career-high 12 goals for Hamburger SV last season and became a hot commodity in the offseason, before Leverkusen snatched him up in June.

   Park Chu-young, under contract with Arsenal since 2011, has barely played for the English club and his short stint with Celta Vigo in Spain on loan from Arsenal didn't amount to much, either.

   Park, 28, still has great raw talent and he thrived under Hong on the Olympic squad last year, scoring the eventual winner in the team's 2-0 victory over Japan in the bronze medal contest.

   Park's future with the national team will likely depend on whether he can secure some consistent playing time in club play.

   Despite lacking a finisher on offense, South Korea played a compact style of football, relying on short passes, quick transitions and forechecking. It represented a dramatic departure from days under Hong's predecessor, Choi Kang-hee, when players mindlessly crossed for tall forwards, with little imagination or creativity.

   It's a testament to Hong's leadership and skills as a tactician that he accomplished the turnaround in such a short period of time. The national team opened training camp on July 17, three days before the start of the East Asian Cup.

   "Though South Korea failed to win any games, the team still showed promise for the future," said Shin, the analyst-turned-professor. "Once Europe-based players join the team, Hong's brand of football will further take shape."