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(News Focus) Unheralded youngsters thrive on men's national football team

2015/06/17 10:45

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, June 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has completed a Southeast Asian road trip with two victories, thanks in large part to unheralded youngsters handpicked by head coach Uli Stielike.

Since taking over South Korea last fall, the German-born coach has been unearthing one gem after another. The three latest names to emerge were forward Lee Yong-jae and midfielders Lee Jae-sung and Jung Woo-young.

The three players, who had combined for just two international matches among them prior to the road trip, were selected in part because international veterans from European clubs were injured. They exceeded expectations and played instrumental roles in the two victories: a 3-0 win over the United Arab Emirates in a friendly in Malaysia and then a 2-0 victory over Myanmar in a World Cup qualifier in Thailand.

The selection of Lee Yong-jae, 24, as one of South Korea's two forwards raised more than a few eyebrows earlier this month. He had never played for the country. That he was competing for a second-division club -- V-Varen Nagasaki in Japan -- was also a knock against him.

Stielike started Lee against the UAE for his first international match, and the forward responded by scoring the team's second goal in the second half of the resounding 3-0 victory. As the team's busiest offensive player, Lee also created a handful of opportunities in the first half.

Lee Jae-sung of South Korea celebrates a goal against Myanmar in its World Cup qualifier in Bangkok on June 16, 2015. (Yonhap) Lee Jae-sung of South Korea celebrates a goal against Myanmar in its World Cup qualifier in Bangkok on June 16, 2015. (Yonhap)

Lee is following in the footsteps of Lee Jeong-hyeop, another forward that Stielike somehow discovered in the football netherworld.

Lee Jeong-hyeop was playing on a second division team in South Korea, Sangju Sangmu, when the coach picked him up for the AFC Asian Cup in January. Not only had Lee never competed on the national team, he had been a fringe player on his own club, playing limited minutes off the bench.

Stielike, who had watched Lee in five matches and came away impressed, stuck to his guns. Lee silenced his critics by scoring three goals in his first six international matches. He has since become a fixture in South Korea's offense.

Against the UAE and Myanmar, midfielder Lee Jae-sung also left his mark. He made his international debut in March and scored his first goal in just his second match, against New Zealand on March 31.

This time, the versatile midfielder for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, scored the opener in the 2-0 win over Myanmar, justifying Stielike's selection with his agility and tireless work ethic.

As a central midfielder in both games, Jung Woo-young didn't get on the score sheet but did virtually everything else well.

The Vissel Kobe midfielder, who had played at the London Olympics on the under-23 team, faced a tall order of filling in for Ki Sung-yueng. The Swansea City stalwart wasn't named to the team for the trip after undergoing knee surgery. As Stielike's captain at the Asian Cup, Ki's leadership on and off the field was critical in guiding South Korea to the final, and his combination of defensive acumen and offensive instincts is almost unparalleled in South Korean football today.

If Jung didn't quite play like the second coming of Ki, at least he did his best Ki impression against the UAE, finding teammates with sharp outlet passes and jumping in on offense to keep the opposing defense honest. Jung was more inconsistent against Myanmar, though it's to be expected of a player who'd never before performed internationally on the senior level.

These little-known youngsters have thrived under Stielike because the coach has been blind to name value. The no-nonsense, straight shooter of a coach often takes the "What have you done for me lately?" approach when picking players and fills up his squad with players in form on their respective clubs -- even if those clubs are in the second tier.

The upshot is that one-time national team fixtures, such as Jeonbuk striker Lee Dong-gook and FC Seoul forward Park Chu-young, have been left on the outside looking in, replaced by the likes of Lee Jeong-hyeop and Lee Yong-jae.

Though it may seem logical to go with in-form players, it wasn't necessarily the case with some of Stielike's predecessors, who faced criticism over selecting players based on their track record and, sometimes, their personal relationships with the coaches.

South Korea head coach Uli Stielike gives orders to his team during a World Cup qualifier against Myanmar in Bangkok on June 16, 2015. (Yonhap) South Korea head coach Uli Stielike gives orders to his team during a World Cup qualifier against Myanmar in Bangkok on June 16, 2015. (Yonhap)

The coach said he was pleased with the two straight victories away from home, though South Korea remains a work in progress.

"I am satisfied because we scored five goals and didn't give up any in those two wins," said Stielike, who has 11 wins, one draw and three losses with South Korea. "But we need to do a better job of creating space on offense and of controlling the ball when we have possession."

   Addressing the victory over Myanmar, in which South Korea at times struggled to break through the defensive wall, Stielike said his attackers lacked imaginative plays.

"Defensively, we played a perfect match," he said. "Offensively, we didn't quite have the creativity. In sports like figure skating, athletes are judged separately on techniques and artistry. We did a fine job technically but not so in terms of artistry."

Next up for Stielike will be the East Asian Cup from Aug. 1 to 9 in Wuhan, China. Since European clubs, which will be readying for their new seasons, aren't obliged to release their players for that tournament, Stielike will once again have to scramble to find players from the domestic K League Classic and other Asian circuits.

"We shouldn't be making any excuse and prepare for the tournament the best we can," the coach added. "I am going to go for young players. I am watching the K League matches every week to check players, and I am leaving open all kinds of possibilities."