S. Korea blanks UAE 2-0 in prep for Olympic soccer qualifiers

January 4, 2016
South Korean players celebrate after scoring their first goal at the 15 minute mark. (Yonhap)

South Korean players celebrate after scoring their first goal at the 60-minute mark. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — The South Korean men’s under-23 football team defeated the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 2-0 in Dubai on Monday in a test match ahead of next week’s Olympic qualifying tournament.

Substitutes Lee Yeong-jae and Hwang Hee-chan scored a goal apiece in the second half at Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium, where South Korea will next face Saudi Arabia on Thursday in their final prep match before the 2016 AFC U-23 Championship in Qatar Jan. 12-30.

The competition will double as the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. South Korea must finish in the top three to punch their ticket to Brazil.

Against the UAE, South Korea head coach Shin Tae-yong kept most of his usual starters on the bench to open the match. The reserves appeared to take early control of the match with quick passes and forechecking, but had nothing to show for all that work in the scoreless first half.

In the 22nd, winger Kang Sang-woo saw his close-range header deflected off the hand of goalkeeper Mohamed Saeed, and then the crossbar.

Eleven minutes later, midfielder Kim Seung-jun took a nifty feed from forward Jin Seong-uk and had a wide open net, only to airmail the shot.

The defense looked shaky at times, allowing the UAE a pair of breakaway opportunities over the final 15 minutes of the half.

With no limit on substitutions, Shin inserted six new players to begin the second half. Two of the substitutes, Park Yong-woo and Lee Seul-chan, tried to connect for a goal a dozen minutes into the second half, but Lee’s shot went off the target.

South Korea finally broke the deadlock just past the hour mark. Forward Jin Seong-uk received a floating pass just inside the box and quickly drew three defenders to him, which opened the lane for midfielder Lee Yeong-jae to sneak in unmarked. Lee then took a pass from Jin and struck one past the diving Saeed into the far corner.

Fresh bodies kept the pressure on the UAE, with striker Hwang Hee-chan just missing the left post on a fast break in the 75th minute.

Hwang then delivered an insurance goal in the 85th. Midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon — also an emerging star on the senior team — drove down the right wing and his cross for Hwang pulled the UAE goalkeeper out of position. The 19-year-old forward then poked one into the empty net for his first goal for the U-23 team.

The winning head coach Shin told reporters afterward the victory was a major confidence boost for his young players.

“We struggled early on with the new match ball, but we were able to convert our chances toward the end,” he said. “I am sure the players must be walking away with more confidence. I switched formations on the fly and the players made good adjustments.”

Shin said it was by design that he didn’t start his big guns against the UAE, and he will stick to the similar strategy against Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

“We can’t reveal ourselves too much in these test matches,” he said. “We will try to test our strategies and formations once again against Saudi Arabia.”

At the AFC tournament, South Korea have been paired with Uzbekistan, Iraq and Yemen in Group C.

There are 16 nations, divided into four groups of four. The top two countries from each group will reach the quarterfinals.

South Korea will first face Uzbekistan on Jan. 13, followed by Yemen on Jan. 16 and Iraq on Jan. 19.

South Korea won bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London, the country’s first Olympic medal in football. They have competed in every Olympics since 1988.