S. Korea chasing 1st win of final World Cup qualifying round vs. Lebanon
South Korean players leave the field after a scoreless draw against Iraq in the teams' Group A match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Seoul last Thursday. (Yonhap)
There is no time to mope or dwell on what could have been. After a disappointing, scoreless draw against Iraq to open the final Asian qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup last Thursday, South Korea will pursue their first win of the phase against Lebanon on Tuesday.
The kickoff for the teams' second Group A match is 8 p.m. at Suwon World Cup Stadium in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul.
Lebanon also had a 0-0 draw in their first match Thursday against the United Arab Emirates in Dubai.
South Korea, ranked 36th, and Lebanon, ranked 98th, played each other twice in the previous round. Lebanon held South Korea to a 0-0 draw in Beirut in November 2019, and then South Korea prevailed 2-1 in June this year at home.
Two goals may not seem like much, but South Korea would love to have that kind of production this time around, after getting shut out by the gritty Iraq last week.
South Korea outshot Iraq 15-2 and possessed the ball 68 percent of the time, only to come up blank in the only offensive statistic that matters -- goals. And for all their shot attempts, South Korea generated only two opportunities that could be described as dangerous.
Iraq also might have set a template on how to beat or at least hold South Korea: guard Son Heung-min as much as possible and let other players beat you.
Iraq coach Dick Advocaat, former South Korea bench boss, made an interesting gambit. He started speedy forward Sherko Kareem at right full back and tasked him with man-marking Son.
And the strategy worked. Son was frustrated at every turn. Even when he had control of the ball, Son was swarmed by multiple bodies and was unable to find open teammates. And as has been his wont, Son was too selfless at times, passing up a decent look at the net to create a better chance for teammates that never materialized.
Other attacking players couldn't provide the safety valve for Son. The narrative would have been vastly different had midfielder Lee Jae-sung not airmailed a shot standing in front of a gaping net in the 27th minute.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento made four substitutions in the second half, inserting offensive-minded players in midfield and defense with an eye on jumpstarting the attack.
During his three-year tenure, the constant knock against Bento has been his inability or refusal to make in-game adjustments and his general lack of flexibility when it comes to roster selection and formulating tactics. One advantage is that the players are intimately familiar with Bento's systems. But on the flip side, South Korea can be predictable for opponents. In the late stages of Thursday's match, Iraqi players blocked off passing lanes and tightened the gap on defense, as if they knew exactly what South Koreans were about to do and how they were going to try to create scoring chances.
It'll be interesting to see what kind of changes, if any, Bento makes against Lebanon. In the immediate aftermath of Thursday night, however, he was noncommittal.
"We'll see. We finished the game a few minutes ago," Bento said, when asked about a possible lineup juggling. "In this moment, the most important thing is to analyze the game, see what we can improve for the next game, and recover as well as possible."
There are two groups of six in the current phase. The top two nations from each group will qualify for next year's World Cup in Qatar. The No. 3 seeds will collide in a playoff match, and the winner will advance to the last-chance intercontinental playoff.
Group A picture is a bit messy after the first match day, with only Iran, the group's highest-ranked team at No. 26, picking up a win, a 1-0 squeaker over the 80th-ranked Syria in Tehran. (Yonhap)
South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986.