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Led by in-form stars, S. Korea pursuing 4th straight win as World Cup qualifying begins vs. Singapore

Nov. 14, 2023 - 09:51 By Yonhap
Members of the South Korean men's national football team train at Mokdong Stadium in Seoul on Monday for a match against Singapore in the second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifying tournament. (Yonhap)

With their Europe-based stars enjoying strong club seasons, South Korea will chase their fourth consecutive win under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann this week against Singapore in Seoul, as their qualifying campaign for the 2026 FIFA World Cup begins.

It will be the first Group C match for both teams in the second round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers. The kickoff is at 8 p.m. Thursday at Seoul World Cup Stadium.

South Korea will then travel to Shenzhen, China, to face China next Tuesday. South Korea will play Thailand, the other team in Group C, in March next year.

At No. 24 in the latest FIFA rankings, South Korea are the top team in Group C, well ahead of China (No. 79), Thailand (No. 112) and Singapore (No. 155).

However, Klinsmann insisted on Monday that he will not take any team lightly and that he expects a difficult match against Singapore.

In 26 all-time meetings, South Korea have registered 21 wins, three draws and two losses against Singapore.

Further bolstering South Korea's chances is the recent form of their top players.

Captain Son Heung-min, who also wears the armband for his Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur, has eight goals this season to rank tied for third. The one other South Korean in the competition, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, has a career-high six goals to sit in a tie for sixth. Hwang has been named the Wolves' Player of the Month for October.

Son and Hwang faced each other in the first "Korean derby" of the season Saturday and will now be back as attacking partners for the national team.

Another key piece for South Korea's offense, Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, has been on a mini goal scoring streak. He scored his first UEFA Champions League goal for the French side in late October and then netted his first league goal two weeks ago.

These goals came on the heels of Lee's senior international breakthrough in two friendly matches in October. Lee grabbed a brace for his first two senior goals against Tunisia on Oct. 13 and scored another against Vietnam four days later.

The trio will look to feast on Singapore's defense, though the underdog team will likely set up a low block and try to outnumber the South Koreans in their own box.

Klinsmann said the key against defensive-minded opponents is to score the first goal and seize control of the match early.

He was heavily criticized as South Korea went winless in his first five matches, posting three draws and two losses and looking uninspired in the process. Klinsmann also took a beating for spending more time overseas than in South Korea, though he has defended his work habits as being internationally oriented.

He has quieted down his skeptics somewhat, as South Korea have won each of their past three friendlies by a combined 11-0.

For the Asian World Cup qualifiers, 36 nations have been divided into nine groups of four in the second round. The top two teams from each of those groups will move on to the third round, where they will be paired into three groups of six.

From there, the top two teams from each group will punch their tickets to the 2026 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. The third- and fourth-place teams from the three groups will still have another shot at qualifying in the fourth round.

The 2026 World Cup will be the first edition to feature 48 nations, up from the current 32. South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986. (Yonhap)