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Korea prepares for its toughest match yet

Game against Japan could determine East Asian Cup winner
Dec 14,2017
After edging North Korea in an embarrassingly close game Tuesday, the South Korean men’s football team is preparing for their final East Asian Cup match against Japan.

The game, which will take place Saturday at Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo, is considered a must if they want to earn their second straight title. South Korea enters the match in second place with one win and a tie. Since Japan, the current No. 1, has won both its matches against China and North Korea, a draw will be unacceptable for the South Korean team.

More than defending the title, the team is trying to defend its honor in the face of savage criticism at home for weak plays.

South Korea started the tournament with a 2-2 draw against China, and many football critics blamed it on the team’s unstable defense. Although South Korea was leading for a majority of that match’s second half, they ended up allowing a goal toward the end of the game. Considering the Chinese squad was filled with rookie players in their early 20s, the draw felt like a loss.

Then during South Korea’s match against North Korea on Tuesday, offense became the problem. Out of the four participating countries, North Korea was considered the weakest, ranking 114th in the most recent FIFA ranking, but South Korea wasn’t able to score a goal. In the end, the 1-0 win came from North Korean defender Ri Yong-chol committing an own goal.

Prior to the match, the South Koreans’ head coach, Shin Tae-yong, expressed strong determination to prove the team’s ability to win, but the Pyrrhic victory from an accidental goal was the ultimate disappointment.

“Both the story and results are important in football, but to see the result, we need to score goals,” Shin said after the match. “I think we need to focus more when we are given scoring opportunities.”

With South Korea struggling to show improvements, they have their work cut out for them facing Japan. In five recent matches, South Korea has never won against Japan, with a record of two ties and three losses. The last time South Korea won against Japan was in May 2010.

But if the team can win on Saturday, South Korea has a shot at defending its title, at the East Asian Cup, also known as the EAFF E-1 Football Championship, which it won in 2015.

“Since Japan has also qualified for the World Cup, we’ll play a great match and win,” Shin said on Wednesday.

Shin will likely deploy Lee Keun-ho of Jeju United as a starting player. Lee wasn’t able to compete in South Korea’s first two matches due to a speculated knee injury, but since he has been cleared, he is awaiting the opportunity to compete on Saturday.

The team is going to need his energy and determination on the field, which he demonstrated during friendly matches last month against Colombia and Serbia.

Lee also has experience playing Japan. In a total of 80 international matches, five were against Japan. Two were wins, two were ties and one was a loss.

Along with Lee, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors striker Kim Shin-wook will likely play a key role.

“It’s an important match for us,” Kim said Wednesday.

Shin has strong trust in Kim as a striker. In the first match against China, Kim scored a goal and made one assist. On Tuesday, he was substituted as a joker in the second half of the match against North Korea.

Of the three strikers on the roster, Kim is the only one to have played in both matches.

“Allowing a goal in the second half against China and not scoring an additional goal against North Korea was disappointing,” Kim said. “We’ll work on our weaknesses and play a great match against Japan.”

Midfielder Lee Myung-joo is also gunning for a win as this will be his last tournament before he joins the military.

Lee started in South Korea’s match against China, and against North Korea, he was substituted in the second half along with Kim.

BY PIH JU-YOUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]