It’s all Greek to him

March 3, 2014

Greece match critical in shaping Hong Myung-bo’s World Cup lineup

Korean manager Hong Myung-bo has yet to decide on his No. 1 striker. (Yonhap)

Korean manager Hong Myung-bo has yet to decide on his No. 1 striker. (Yonhap)

By Kim Tong-hyung

With the World Cup less than 100 days away, Korea manager Hong Myung-bo has arrived at perhaps the most critical moment in preparation.

Korea’s friendly against Greece in Athens on Wednesday 9 a.m. PST will be its final tune-up match before the World Cup opener against Russia in June, representing the last opportunity for fringe players to impress Hong and make his roster for Brazil, which will be announced in May. But in terms of legit options, Hong’s cupboard is looking rather bare.

The Korea Football Association’s decision to name Hong as the new coach after last year’s final qualification round was a bold move argued as a necessity. It was clear the team wasn’t going anywhere under the leadership of the likable but limited Choi Kang-hee, who somehow led Korea to a World Cup berth without convincing anyone it deserved it.

Eight months into Hong’s reign, however, the Taeguk Warriors continue to be stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity. Since the coaching change, the team has scored 13 goals and conceded 17 in 13 matches, displaying a variety of problems highlighted by an alarming lack of firepower.

Hong, who describes his World Cup roster as ”80 percent complete,’’ is in desperate search of improvement. It remains unclear where this will come from if it does.

Park Ji-sung, the country’s top footballer of the past 20 years, has made it clear he isn’t walking through that door. Park Chu-young, who started for Korea’s World Cup teams in 2006 and 2010, has walked through that door, but as a diminished player toiling on the benches of second-division English football.

The uncomfortable truth is that Hong probably has the country’s best, available players already in place. And best will be something short of good if the team doesn’t start playing better than the sum of its parts.

The Greece match is planned as a full-dress rehearsal for Korea with Hong summoning Europe-based players such as Lee Chung-yong (Bolton Wanderers), Son Heung-min (Bayer Leverkusen), Ki Sung-yeung (Sunderland), Koo Ja-cheol (FSV Mainz) and Hong Jeong-ho (Augusburg), who are expected to be his core players in Brazil.

Park Chu-young, now with Watford in England’s Championship league, will compete with towering Ulsan Hyundai striker Kim Shin-wook for minutes at the forward position.

A passionate advocate of defense-minded football, Hong appears to have settled on a backline anchored by defenders Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon and protected by a central-midfield axis of Ki and Han Kook-young. Injuries to Cha Du-ri and Hwang Seok-ho have opened an opportunity for Park Jin-po at fullback.

”The Greece match will be the last opportunity to test the players before I settle on the final roster for Brazil. The outcome of the game obviously isn’t as important as the process,’’ Hong told reporters at Incheon International Airport on Sunday before leaving for Athens.

”While Greece plays a different style of football than the Russians, I think they will provide a good simulation as the players have good size. We have trained hard for the World Cup and I expect players to show what they are truly capable of in the match.’’

Hong said that he has yet to decide on his starters in a number of positions, including right fullback and goalkeeper, where veteran Jung Sung-ryong is facing competition from Kim Seung-ryong.

”I think opportunities are open at every position. This will require the coaching staff to be wiser in managing competitions between players and responding to injuries,’’ he said.

It remains to be seen whether Park Chu-young, who represented Korea on the 2006 and 2010 World Cup teams, can provide a glimmer of hope in solving Hong’s scoring woes.

While it’s clear the world has already seen the best of Park, his passport says he is only 28. If he can prove he’s anywhere close to his prime, Park could be argued as a better option than Kim Shin-wook and Lee Keun-ho who have been getting most minutes at the forward position under Hong. But that is quite a big “if.’’

During his better days, Park showed a nose for the net and an uncanny ability to win balls in the air and hold them until support arrived. He also displayed good chemistry with Europe-based players such as Son, Lee Chung-yong and Ki.

Against Greece, expect Park to show an urgency to prove his worth under the media microscope.

At the World Cup finals in Brazil, Korea has been grouped with Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Group H.