South Korea looking to stay perfect in World Cup qualifier vs. Lebanon

March 22, 2016
South Korea men's national football team train at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on March 21, 2016, ahead of their 2018 FIFA World Cup regional qualifier against Lebanon. (Yonhap)

South Korea men’s national football team train at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on March 21, 2016, ahead of their 2018 FIFA World Cup regional qualifier against Lebanon. (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korea will aim to keep their perfect record in the second Asian qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup when they host Lebanon on Thursday.

Regardless of the match against Lebanon, which will be played at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea have already clinched the top seed in Group G with six straight wins, and will advance to the final round of the regional qualification.

Lebanon, ranked 145th, are currently third in Group G with three wins, one draw and two losses. South Korea, 57th in the FIFA rankings, previously beat Lebanon 3-0 in their first encounter in September. The Taeguk Warriors lead the head-to-head record at 8-2-1, with their only loss coming in 2011.

South Korea still have the final group qualification action against Kuwait in their schedule, but the match was postponed indefinitely following FIFA’s sanctions on the Middle East country. The match is expected to be forfeited as a 3-0 win for South Korea, though the decision should be made by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee.

This means that the match against Lebanon will be South Korea’s final one in the second round of regional qualification, where they have been flawless. South Korea have won all six matches, scoring 23 goals and surrendering none.

South Korea are looking to extend their record for most consecutive clean sheet wins. By shutting down Lebanon, Uli Stielike’s side will tie the national record at seven. The men’s team previously had seven straight shutout wins in 1978 and 1989.

South Korea will have a chance to set a new record on Sunday, when they face Thailand in Bangkok for a friendly match.

Stielike emphasized that South Korea will put their best effort forward to begin the new year on a positive note, as the Lebanon match will be the first of the year for his team. The 61-year-old German coach said that he will first watch performances of Europe-based players who have been struggling to become regulars within their clubs.

“I have given them an opportunity (to prove themselves),” Stielike said on Monday. “I will see how they perform and answer to my call-up.”

The competition among players is heating up to catch Stielike’s eye. For the striker position, Ulsan Hyundai’s Lee Jeong-hyeop has returned to the national team for the first time in seven months since suffering a cheekbone fracture. He will have to compete against FC Porto’s Suk Hyun-joon and Seongnam FC’s Hwang Ui-jo. Lee had been a regular pick by Stielike since the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

Stielike said that goal scoring will not be their only mission on the pitch.

“It’s important that these attackers are on defense,” he said. “The reason why we had many shutout matches last year is that the players played defense from the front.”

Stielike hinted that there is a slight change of plan after FC Augsburg forward Ji Dong-won was dropped from his 23-man squad due to injury and was replaced by FC Seoul’s defensive midfielder Ju Se-jong. The coach said Koo Ja-cheol, who also plays for Augsburg, could move to the flanks.

As for defense, Stielike will think about which player to start as wingbacks. Hoffenheim’s Kim Jin-su and Borussia Dortmund’s Park Joo-ho will compete for the left back position, although both have struggled to get playing time on their German clubs. For right back, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ Kim Chang-soo was called up to replace the injured Oh Jae-suk of Gamba Osaka, but Kim Kee-hee and Jang Hyun-soo, both playing in the Chinese Super League, can also carry out the role.

National team players said that they will not disappoint fans at Ansan with their performances.

“Since this is our first match of the year, we will do our best,” said midfielder Ki Sung-yueng. “We will focus on the match, because that’s our mission.”