- California Assembly OKs highest minimum wage in nation
- S. Korea unveils first graphic cigarette warnings
- US joins with South Korea, Japan in bid to deter North Korea
- LPGA golfer Chun In-gee finally back in action
- S. Korea won’t be top seed in final World Cup qualification round
- US men’s soccer misses 2nd straight Olympics
- US back on track in qualifying with 4-0 win over Guatemala
- High-intensity workout injuries spawn cottage industry
- CDC expands range of Zika mosquitoes into parts of Northeast
- Who knew? ‘The Walking Dead’ is helping families connect
Not mission impossible
Korea avoids worst-case scenario, but Belgium, Russia are formidable foes
By Kim Tong-hyung
Yes, this is a difficult group. But it could have been much worse.
It was uncertain whether Korea’s chances for a respectable showing at the 2014 World Cup improved or worsened after FIFA’s ping-pong balls grouped it with Belgium, Algeria and Russia in Group H at a draw in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil, on Saturday (KST).
Featuring an embarrassment of riches in talent, Belgium represent one of the hottest teams in Europe and are considered to have a puncher’s chance to win it all.
The Russians, who recently defeated the Koreans 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai, have been playing stingy football since the arrival of former England boss Fabio Capello and Algeria have been consistently impressive since qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Still, the Koreans have to feel fortunate of avoiding a second squad among the European elite and also escaping the entirety of South American contenders such as the mighty hosts Brazil and Lionel Messi’s Argentina. (The Australians are nodding grimly right now as they contemplate their matches against reigning champions Spain, the Netherlands and Chile in Group B.)
As for the other Asian qualifiers, Japan ended up in Group C with Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire and Greece, while Iran drew Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F.
Hong Myung-bo, the former star defender who took over as Korea manager in June, expressed confidence about advancing the Taeguk Warriors to the knock-out stages but also warned against over-optimism.
“This is not a favorable draw and there are no easy opponents. There is never an easy opponent in the World Cup,” Hong told reporters.
“Belgium is a strong team that will even be better next year as the players gain experience. Russia are a team of skilled and physical players and Algeria are also a strong team too.”
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.
No walk in the park
Under Hong’s 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. Still, mediocrity is an improvement from the brand of brain-dead football displayed under Hong’s predecessor Choi Kang-hee, who somehow got the Koreans to Brazil without convincing anyone they belonged there.
Hong deserves credit for putting the teeth back to Korea’s defense, which despite giving up goals in six consecutive matches, looks better in the eye test.
His offense, on the other hand, has been worse than the numbers indicate. Four of the team’s goals under Hong have come in a meaningless rout of underwhelming Haiti in a friendly in August. Despite featuring a number of players such as Son Heung-min, Lee Chung-yong and Kim Bo-kyung who are finding regular minutes with their European clubs, the Korean attack has been showing an alarming lack of ideas.
Hong favors to pack the midfield under a 4-2-3-1 formation and seems to have settled with towering Ulsan Hyundai forward Kim Shin-wook as his target man. It remains to be seen whether Kim can find a way to better exploit the width provided by Son, the promising Bayer Leverkusen attacker, and Lee, the Bolton Wanderers winger.
Ideally, Hong would prefer to secure a win and a draw before the match against Belgium, a team blessed with a plethora of top talent that has been inspiring talks about a “golden generation.”
Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and the center-back axis of Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany combine for an air-tight defense for Belgium. The team’s midfield depth — highlighted by English Premier League-based players Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembele — is impressive.
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. Hazard, the 22-year-old Chelsea player, in particular is a nightmare to guard on his best days, with his blend of smarts, trickery and incredible speed beginning to draw comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Under 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.
For what it’s worth, the Koreans did hold their own against the Russians in last month’s friendly, a loss that felt equally deserved and unfortunate, and it’s unlikely that Hong’s team will be intimidated ahead of the World Cup opener.
The core of the Russian team is built around the country’s domestic league players. FC Zenit Saint Petersburg teammates Roman Shirokov and Viktor Fayzulin and FC Dynamo Moscow player Igor Denisov anchor the midfield and forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov, another Zenit Saint Petersburg player, spearheads the attack.
Algeria, an emerging African powerhouse, feature 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.
Hosts Brazil will face Cameroon, Mexico and Croatia in Group A. Group G is talked off as this tournament’s “group of death,” with two-time champions Germany pitted against Portugal, Ghana and the United States.
England, Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica are grouped in Group D, while Group E features Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras and France.
Hong’s team will open the first training camp of 2014 on Jan. 13 in Foz do Iguacu, about an hour’s flight from Sao Paulo. The team will then move to the U.S. for two more weeks of training, and will play three friendly matches there against Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S. in that order.