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(News Focus) S. Korean football shows hope for World Cup as it wraps up 2013

2013/11/20 11:20

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 20 (Yonhap) -- Despite suffering a loss in its final game of 2013 this week, the South Korean men's national football team still showed hope for next year's FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

South Korea blew an early lead and lost 2-1 to Russia in Dubai on Tuesday. It foiled South Korea's bid to close out the year on a three-game winning streak, after the country's wins over Mali last month and Switzerland last week.

Under head coach Hong Myung-bo, who was appointed in June, South Korea won three games, lost four and drew three others, with 12 goals scored and 11 allowed.

Not all was lost for the national team as it heads into 2014, especially considering the disastrous start to Hong's tenure in the summer. As time wore on, players gradually developed a familiarity with Hong's system and with each other at both ends of the pitch.

Hong began his senior national team coaching career at the East Asian Cup, which South Korea hosted in July, and South Korea managed two draws and a loss. Its August friendly against Peru also ended in a draw, giving Hong the dubious distinction of becoming the first South Korean head coach to begin his term with a four-game winless streak.

In those four games, South Korea managed just one goal, as three of the matches ended in scoreless draws.

A 4-1 win over an overmatched Haiti in the fifth game was followed by losses to a pair of top-10 countries on the FIFA rankings, first to Croatia and then to Brazil.

And yet it was in the 2-0 loss on Oct. 12 to Brazil, the five-time World Cup champion, that South Korea finally began to show some grit.

South Korea made life miserable for Brazil, as its midfielders and defensive backs willingly threw their bodies at skilled South Americans and frustrated highly regarded stars such as Neymar and Oscar.

Buoyed after the hard-fought match, South Korea handily defeated Mali 3-1 three days after the Brazil game. Bayer Leverkusen star Son Heung-min and Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung each netted highlight-reel goals in the second half, and in plays leading up to these goals, their teammates also demonstrated some creativity and deft footwork hardly seen in earlier matches.

The 2-1 win over the world No. 7 Switzerland last Friday in Seoul may have been the best game South Korea has played under Hong. The host country erased a 1-0 deficit with a pair of headers. In addition, Kim Shin-wook, a lanky striker once maligned for his lack of versatility, delivered his finest international performance to date, creating space for fellow attackers to roam free and setting up a series of scoring opportunities.

Kim then scored the opening goal against Russia, becoming the first front-line striker to score a goal for Hong.

Kim's emergence as the go-to-guy in the striker position appears to be the biggest gain for Hong as he readies to open his first training camp of next year in January in Brazil and play three friendly matches in the United States later in the same month.

Hong had rarely singled out players in public over his coaching career through different age groups, starting with under-20 and under-23 Olympic teams and now the senior squad. But at the end of the East Asian Cup, Hong essentially threw Kim under the bus, saying the 196-centimeter forward's presence hurt the team's offensive flow because his teammates only sought to send crosses for Kim's head and deserted their ground game.

Kim was kept off the national team for the next five matches. During that time, Kim helped his K League Classic club, Ulsan Hyundai, surge to first place, scoring four goals in a five-game stretch to take the league's scoring lead with 19.

Hong called him up before the Switzerland match and admitted that he might not have known how to best use Kim on offense. The team's practices focused heavily on how to build offensive schemes around Kim, and their efforts bore fruit against both Switzerland and Russia.

In those two games, Kim proved that he is not a one-dimensional player, and that he possesses skills to put together an effective ground game to complement his aerial assault. He drew opposing defenders deep in their zone, which created space for creative midfielders like Lee Chung-yong, Lee Keun-ho and Son Heung-min.

After the Russian match, Hong said he was pleased with how Kim has come through in the past two matches.

"He's in excellent form and we've had some good practices on how to best capitalize on his assets," he said. "In this match (against Russia), our players were even better than against Switzerland in playing off each other on offense and moving without the ball."

   Son, a 21-year-old dynamo, has also fit in nicely with Hong's system. Despite his considerable raw talent, he remained on the offensive periphery under Hong's predecessor, Choi Kang-hee, who never figured out how to use Son during the Asian World Cup qualifying tournament. Hong at first voiced concerns about Son's ability to adjust to the national team's offense, but Son has responded with a team-high three goals for Hong.

Hong has shown a penchant for rotating his wingers on offense, which requires versatility from the second line of attack behind the striker. The country has an abundance of talent in midfield, but Lee Chung-yong, Lee Keun-ho and Son have played with more consistency than others.

The defense for Hong has mostly held its ground, but giving up at least a goal in six straight matches should be a source for concern.

On a brighter note, Hong appears to have settled on his central defensive pair, as Hong Jeong-ho of FC Augsburg in Germany and Kim Young-gwon of Guangzhou Evergrande in China have started the last four straight games and five of the past six overall.

Coach Hong lamented the team's momentary lapse of concentration against Russia and it must be addressed before the World Cup.

"Russia's offense didn't do anything special on the first goal (in the 11th minute by Fyodor Smolov)," Hong said. "We just had to put bodies on them but missed our man-to-man coverage. It was disappointing, but before the World Cup, I think we had some valuable learning experience."