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Korea faces pivotal match against Syria

Loss could well mean an end to the team’s World Cup journey
Mar 28,2017
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Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur will play for the Korean national football team today against Syria at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Mapo District, western Seoul. [KIM MIN-KYU]
After losing two straight qualifier matches on its quest to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Korean football team goes into its game against Syria today at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Mapo District, western Seoul, with the stakes ever higher.

The Korean squad has just come off a bruising 1-0 loss to China on Thursday. During that game, Son Heung-min, the striker for Tottenham Hotspur, had to watch the game from the bench as he had accumulated yellow cards from previous matches against Iran and Uzbekistan.

As he watched his compatriots fall to the lowest-ranked team in Group A, in which Korea is competing, Son left the stadium with a stiff face and determination to help the team redeem itself when it enters the pitch tonight.

“There is no further excuse required,” Son said at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, where the team has been training. “I only have thoughts of winning against Syria.”

The Korean team has only four games left until the World Cup, and it is currently second in Group A, but its position is precarious. Only the top two teams in the group move on to the World Cup, and expectations are high for Son, the darling of the English Premier League.

Although it is a home match, the Korean football team won’t be breathing easy - and it’s not just because of the air. When Korea lost to China, Syria won against Uzbekistan 1-0. When the groups were first assigned, Syria was considered a weak team, ranked 95th compared to Korea at 40th.

But once the games started, teams soon realized the Syrians would not be easy to beat. The war-torn country won two consecutive matches against China and Uzbekistan, and it’s now in fourth place with two wins, two ties, two losses and eight points.

Syria has a strong defensive line. Of the team’s six games in the final qualification round, it has only allowed two goals, and when the Korean team last played Syria in September, the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Syria did not allow any goals when it tied against Iran on Nov. 15 and won against Uzbekistan on March 23, indicating that the team has only improved.

“There are no easy games in final qualification matches, but if we demonstrate our strength on the field, we will be able to have good results,” said Ayman Hakeem, manager of the Syrian football team.

The stakes are high for the Korean team. If Syria wins, it has a chance of usurping Korea in second place.

Coming off his suspension, Son will take the pitch in tonight's match against Syria. He’ll likely play a key role in trying to break Syria’s strong defensive line.

The striker has a track record of dispersing the opponent’s defense with his fast footwork, scoring 14 goals for Tottenham Hotspur this season. Son’s presence in the Korean team looms large, and there is a big gap in strength when he isn’t there.

Of course, the team isn’t guaranteed a win just by having Son on the pitch. “If he can’t get the ball, then his return is meaningless,” Stielike said.

That said, Son is certainly a strong asset for the Korean team, and it’s going to need a strategy that can maximize his ability and agility.

“I want to give hope to Korean football fans by winning against Syria,” Son said.

The match will be broadcast live by JTBC, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, starting at 8 p.m.

BY SEO JI-YOUNG AND KIM JI-HAN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]