With the FIFA World Cup fast approaching, South Korea will host Iceland on Friday in what will be the last test for players on the roster bubble.
The match between the 28th-ranked South Korea and the 62nd-ranked Iceland is at 8 p.m. Friday at Hwaseong Sports Complex Main Stadium in Hwaseong, about 40 kilometers south of Seoul. South Korea's 26-man World Cup squad will be unveiled Saturday.
Head coach Paulo Bento opened the final pre-World Cup training camp at home in late October with 27 players, mostly from Asian leagues whose seasons have ended. Those based in Europe were not available, as the camp did not fall during the FIFA international window.
The camp was set up as Bento's one last opportunity to give looks to players on the bubble for the World Cup squad. About a handful of spots on the 26-man World Cup roster will likely be filled with players based in Europe, while another half a dozen or so places should go to those from leagues in Japan, China or Qatar. That leaves about 10 spots for South Korean league players to fill.
Bento will need all the help he can get up front, with his captain and best offensive player, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur, recovering from fractures around his left eye following an in-game collision with an opponent. Son underwent surgery last week, and his status for the World Cup remains in doubt. Bento may still pick him for the club, but it is unlikely Son will be 100 percent fit by South Korea's first Group H match on Nov. 24 against Uruguay.
Two other Europe-based attackers, Hwang Ui-jo of Olympiakos and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, have struggled to get on the pitch for their clubs this season, leading to concerns about their form for the World Cup. That should leave the door open for the reigning K League 1 scoring champion, Cho Gue-sung of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Cho scored 17 goals in 31 matches.
"I feel like this has been the best season of my career. If I get to play at the World Cup, I will try to maintain this form," Cho told reporters at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul, last Friday. "Training with some great players on the national team and scoring a few goals for my club have given me so much confidence. Every football player dreams of playing at the World Cup. It will be an honor just to walk into a World Cup stadium."
On defense, South Korea should be set with Napoli's stalwart Kim Min-jae at one of the two center back positions and Jeonbuk veteran Kim Jin-su at left fullback. Ulsan Hyundai FC's Kim Young-gwon has been a frequent partner for Kim Min-jae, though some extra options in that position won't hurt.
Bento has had a revolving door of underwhelming players at right fullback, and the position will be the most hotly contested one ahead of the World Cup.
Bento has several options in midfield. Both Son Jun-ho of Shandong Taishan FC and Jung Woo-young of Al Sadd have proven capable of handling defensive midfielder duties, with Hwang In-beom of Olympiakos a virtual lock in the middle.
There are some skilled players fighting for attacking midfield and winger positions. From overseas, veterans, such as Lee Jae-sung of Mainz 05, Hwang Hee-chan and Son, who is usually listed as a midfielder on the national team, should make the World Cup team. Among K League youngsters, Ulsan's Um Won-sang and Gangwon FC's Yang Hyun-jun are energetic types who could provide some spark off the bench.
Um told reporters at the NFC on Monday that he will try to capitalize on his strongest asset: speed.
"My job is to continue to play the way I am capable of, and do the best I can to execute whatever the coach asks me to do," Um said. "It's up to the coach to decide who will play at the World Cup. I don't think I have the upper hand on some others."
In goal, Kim Seung-gyu (Al-Shabab), Jo Hyeon-woo (Ulsan) and Song Bum-keun (Jeonbuk) have been the usual suspects for Bento in recent matches, with Kim getting the bulk of opportunities through World Cup qualifiers and recent friendlies. Kim started one match in his first World Cup in 2014. He then emerged as the country's new No. 1, but Jo snatched the job from him just before the 2018 World Cup, playing all three South Korean matches in Russia.
Kim is the steadier type who is also adept at starting buildup plays with his kicking. Jo is a below average kicker but is capable of making some spectacular saves thanks to his quick reflexes and athleticism.
"I had my opportunity four years ago, but I couldn't pounce on it," Kim said Tuesday. "I don't want to make the same mistakes again."
As for his advantage over Jo in kicking abilities, Kim said: "He's made some strides in that aspect. I don't think I have a big edge over him now."
Jo said he has the same approach from four years ago.
"Four years ago, no one expected me to play in World Cup matches, but I just kept my head down and worked as hard as I could," Jo said. "Then I had my opportunity. And I am doing the same things that I did back then."
When asked if he had any particular opponent to keep an eye on, Jo responded: "I don't even know which players are on which team. I am just preparing to stop every shot that comes my way." (Yonhap)