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With key players back, S. Korea taking on Saudi Arabia in round of 16

Jan. 28, 2024 - 10:07 By Yonhap
South Korean players huddle around head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (center) before a training session at Al Egla Training Site in Doha on Saturday, for the round of 16 match against Saudi Arabia at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. (Yonhap)

With two key veterans back from injuries, South Korea's quest to end a 64-year title drought at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup will begin in earnest this week, with the first knockout stage match against Saudi Arabia on the horizon.

The round of 16 clash between the two rivals will kick off at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, at 7 p.m. Tuesday (local time), or 1 a.m. Wednesday (Seoul time).

South Korea, the third-highest ranked AFC team at No. 23, finished as the runner-up in Group E with five points from a win and two draws, while Saudi Arabia, No. 56, won Group F with seven points on two wins and a draw.

Both were undefeated but took much different paths to that point.

South Korea vastly underperformed in the group stage. They defeated eventual group winner Bahrain 3-1 to open the proceedings, but only after blowing a 1-0 lead and having Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee Kang-in carry the day with two goals in the second half.

South Korea trailed Jordan 2-1 before a Jordanian own goal in the dying moments allowed them to salvage a 2-2 draw.

Then facing the lowly, 130th-ranked Malaysia, South Korea blew a 1-0 advantage and then a 3-2 lead en route to a 3-3 draw. A turnover and a defensive breakdown led to Malaysia's dramatic, last-gasp equalizer that cost South Korea a chance to win the group.

In Group F, Saudi Arabia defeated Oman 2-1 and then Kyrgyzstan 2-0. Against Thailand, Saudi Arabia missed a penalty and had a goal wiped off on an offside ruling in a goalless draw.

South Korea scored eight times and enjoyed the most possession of any team in the group stage with 73 percent. Saudi Arabia ranked second in that category with 70 percent possession.

South Korea also tied Indonesia for the most goals conceded by a knockout-bound team with six.

By falling to second place in Group E, South Korea avoided facing Japan, the top AFC team at No. 17, in the round of 16. Japan suffered an even more shocking result in the group stage, losing to Iraq 2-1 on their way to the runner-up finish in Group D.

Considering the way South Korea have played to this point, though, beating Saudi Arabia and advancing to the quarterfinals is far from a given.

One positive takeaway for South Korea in the draw against Malaysia was the return of winger Hwang Hee-chan and left back Kim Jin-su from lower body injuries.

Hwang, who leads Wolverhampton Wanderers with a career-high 10 goals this season, missed the first two matches with a left hip ailment. In 61 international matches, Hwang has netted 12 goals, second most on the team behind only Son Heung-min.

Kim, a veteran of 70 caps, was not available for the first two games due to a left calf injury. Both players were brought in off the bench against Malaysia and reported no physical issues afterward.

Kim is one of just two natural left backs for South Korea. Lee Ki-je, who had started the first two games in Kim's absence, has been sidelined with a right hamstring injury.

South Korea have had five wins, eight draws and five losses against Saudi Arabia. Their most recent meeting came in September last year in a friendly in Wales, where South Korea prevailed 1-0 on a goal by Cho Gue-sung. It was South Korea's first win under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann in his sixth match.

South Korea have some fond memories of Education City Stadium, where they beat Portugal 2-1 in the final group match of the FIFA World Cup to grab a knockout berth in December 2022. Son Heung-min set up Hwang Hee-chan's late go-ahead goal. (Yonhap)