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China could prove a tough challenge for Taeguk Warriors

Jan 15,2019
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The Korean national football team trains at a football field at New York University Abu Dhabi during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup Sunday. [YONHAP]
Korea will try to clinch the top spot in its group at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup when it meets China this week.

Korea and China will go head-to-head to close out their Group C campaign at the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Wednesday. The match will kick off at 5:30 p.m. at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi, or 10:30 p.m. in Seoul.

Both teams have six points across two wins, but China is currently the group leader thanks to its superior goal difference, plus-4 to plus-2.

Korea defeated both the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in its previous Group C matches, while China edged Kyrgyzstan 2-1 and blanked the Philippines 3-0.

At the 24-team Asian Cup, the top two teams from each group and four best third-place teams all advance to the round of 16. Both Korea and China have already booked their spots in the knockout stage, but they are likely to give their best in their last group stage match as the group winners are expected to take an easier path to the final. The Group C winners are scheduled to take on a third-place team in the round of 16, while the runners-up from Group C will meet the runners-up from Group A.

Korea boasts a dominant head-to-head record against China, with 18 wins, 13 draws and two losses. However, the Taeguk Warriors have not collected a win against China in their last two meetings.

Under the guidance of World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi, China pipped Korea 1-0 in the final Asian World Cup qualifying match in March 2017. China then played Korea to a 2-2 draw at the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) E-1 Championship in Japan in December 2017.

But Korea boasts a different team now and is led by its new head coach Paulo Bento, who took the helm in August 2018. Under Bento’s reign, Korea has yet to suffer a defeat in nine matches.

Korea will also have Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min on its roster.

The 26-year-old forward didn’t feature in Korea’s first two matches at the Asian Cup under an agreement between Tottenham and the KFA. He is scheduled to join the national team Monday.

Son, arguably the best Asian player in recent years, has been in hot form - scoring eight goals and delivering six assists in the last 10 matches for Tottenham - and will no doubt boost Korea’s lackluster offense at this tournament. So far, Bento’s team has made 35 attempts on goal, but only two of them found the back of the net.

However, there is also the possibility that Bento could rest Son following the player’s long trip from London to Abu Dhabi. Son played full time in Tottenham’s 1-0 loss against Manchester United in an English Premier League match Sunday.

Korea was unable to use midfield general Ki Sung-yueng, skillful winger Lee Jae-sung and versatile defender Kwon Kyung-won against Kyrgyzstan because of injuries. These players should all be available for the match against China as they’ve all returned to training, though Bento may not risk using them until they reach their best form.

Bento’s real concern could be the absence of veteran right-back Lee Yong, who is ineligible against China due to his accumulation of yellow cards. Lee is one of the few players who has started in all of the national team matches under Bento.

Kim Moon-hwan, who won a gold medal with Korea at the 18th Asian Games, will get the chance to make his Asian Cup debut, but the 23-year-old only has four caps under his belt.

Korea’s core center-back Kim Young-gwon should be familiar with Chinese football and will lead the team’s defense as usual. The 28-year-old has played for Guangzhou Evergrande in the Chinese Super League (CSL) since 2012 and also coached by Lippi when the Italian tactician was in charge of Guangzhou from 2012 to 2014.

Yonhap