Bring the heat

January 1, 2014

Hong says Korea squad for Brazil World Cup nearly complete

Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-yong is expected to be a criticial piece of the Korean attack at the World Cup in Brazil. (Korea Times file)

Bolton Wanderers’ Lee Chung-yong is expected to be a criticial piece of the Korean attack at the World Cup in Brazil. (Korea Times file)

By Kim Tong-hyung

National team coach  Hong Myung-bo

National team coach
Hong Myung-bo

After spending the past six months fast-tracking the rebuilding of Korea’s national football team, Hong Myung-bo seems anxious to declare the process complete.

Talking to journalists on Monday, Hong said that his squad for the World Cup final in Brazil is “80-percent finished.’’ He expects to have a clearer idea of his final 23-man roster after the team completes its training sessions in Brazil and North America this month.

Although the Koreans are making their eighth consecutive appearance on the world sport’s biggest stage, their uninspiring play during the qualifying campaign has tempered expectations for a respectable showing in Brazil.

Hong replaced Choi Kang-hee at the coaching helm after the final qualifying match in June. Under his watch, the Koreans scored 12 goals and conceded 11 in 10 matches, managing to win only three of the games against four defeats and three draws.

Hong, however, claims that the team is ready to step off the treadmill of mediocrity. FIFA’s ping-pong balls grouped Korea with Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Group H at its draw last month in Brazil.

”Our team has an abundance of young and talented players. However, we are short in the experience department. The winter training session in January, the new professional league seasons starting in March and the friendly matches scheduled before the start of the World Cup will be critical for us,’’ Hong said.

Hong admitted that the team’s lack of offensive explosiveness is a problem, but expressed confidence that his current unit of attackers will show better chemistry moving forward. He continues to find it difficult to trust struggling Arsenal forward Park Chu-young, who has been arguably Korea’s best striker in the past decade, but whose days in top-flight European football now appear to be numbered.

”We have to wait and see how the January transfer market plays out. If (Park) finds a new team, that would be great for the player himself and the national football team,’’ said Hong, who is unwilling to use a player who isn’t getting regular minutes for his club team.

”We have to develop our abilities to score. After the final roster is set in May, that will be the focus of training. I have been experimenting with many players since I took over as manager. Unless someone starts scoring a goal every game in the new season, I think it’s difficult at this point to expect a new player to emerge and solve our problems.’’

Barring injuries or career-altering slumps, Europe-based players such as Sonh Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton Wanderers), Kim Bo-kyung (Cardiff City) and Ki Sung-yueng (Sunderland) will be named to Hong’s final squad.

Kim Shin-wook, the towering Ulsan Hyundai forward, and Lee Keun-ho, the speedy Sangju Sangmu attacker, have their spots virtually locked as well. Han Kook-young, playing for Japanese club Shonan Bellmare, is likely to be Ki’s partner in the midfield and Hong has built his defense around the center-back axis of Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon.

Hong has a slew of options at fullback, but seems to be more comfortable starting Kim Jin-soo on the left side and Lee Yong on the right. While Jung Sung-ryong has been his first-choice goalkeeper, Kim Seung-gyu appears to be providing competition.

Korea will open the World Cup against Russia on June 17 in Cuiaba, central Brazil, and then will face Algeria on June 22 in Porto Alegre, south of Cuiaba. It will close out the group stage against Belgium on June 26 in Sao Paulo. Each of the 32 teams in Brazil will play three group-stage games, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the round of 16 knockout stage.

Hong would prefer to secure at least a win and a draw before the match against Belgium, a team blessed with a plethora of top talent that has been inspiring talk about a “golden generation.”

Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany anchor the team’s stifling defense and elite players such as Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele provide impressive, midfield depth. Belgium’s offense is just as noteworthy, presenting a potent combination between creative attackers Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas and frontline predators Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.

Under former England manager Fabio Capello, Russia have successfully transformed into a defensive-minded squad, conceding only five goals during their qualifying campaign, which isn’t exactly good news for the Koreans and their scoring problems.

Algeria, an emerging African powerhouse, features some standout Europe-based players, such as Sofiane Feghouli, a talented playmaker now with Spanish club Valencia, and forward Ishak Belfodil, a promising Inter Milan player.