|Korea’s Koo Ja-cheol (center) takes part in a training session ahead of the Croatia match on Monday. (Yonhap News)|
In a stern test ahead of FIFA World Cup qualification matches, the South Korean men’s national soccer team will take on Croatia in London this week.
South Korea set up its training camp in Marlow, west of central London, last week in preparation for the match scheduled for 2:05 p.m. Wednesday local time, or 11:05 p.m. Wednesday in Korea, at Craven Cottage, home of the English Premier League club, Fulham.
Croatia was ranked 10th in the most recent FIFA world rankings released on Jan. 13, 24 spots above South Korea.
It will be South Korea’s first international match of 2013 as well as its last game before the final round of the Asian qualifications for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil resumes next month.
With four games left in the qualification stage, South Korea, seeking its eighth consecutive World Cup appearance, sits in second place in Group A with seven points, one behind the leader, Uzbekistan, with one game in hand.
South Korea is tied with Iran in points but remains ahead on superior goal difference. Only the top two nations from the group earn automatic berths to the World Cup. The two third-place teams will meet in a playoff for the right to compete in an intercontinental playoff against a South American opponent.
South Korea performed poorly in its last two qualifiers. It was held to a 2-2 draw by Uzbekistan in September and lost to Iran 1-0 the following month.
Against Croatia, South Korean head coach Choi Kang-hee recalled more than a dozen players from overseas clubs. When unveiling the team last month, Choi said he planned to carry virtually the same roster into the four remaining World Cup qualifiers.
“The key for us is to find the right combination on offense,” Choi said.
“We have some talented players on this team. We will not back down against Croatia.”
Strikers Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in South Korea’s K League Classic, and Park Chu-young, who plays for Celta Vigo in the top Spanish league, will be asked to provide spark, something they haven’t been able to do in their earlier matches together.
Despite their apparent lack of chemistry, Lee and Park represent Choi’s best offensive weapons up front. After practice Monday, Lee said things will be different against Croatia.
“It’s not like we’re on bad terms or having problems off the field,” Lee said. “We will try to create scoring chances.”
Son Heung-min, a dynamic 20-year-old with seven goals in the top German league, Bundesliga, this season, could serve as a complementary winger to Lee and Park. The Hamburger SV star said he has played all offensive positions in Germany and he will gladly play anywhere he’s asked.
The South Korean midfield is stacked with crafty youngsters, led by Ki Sung-yueng of Swansea City in the English Premier League and Koo Ja-cheol of FC Augsburg in Germany.
Ki has sat out practice the past two days, though, citing fatigue. If he is not available for the match, Koo will be asked to generate chances from the middle.
Koo, who captained South Korea to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, said his teammates should play without fear against the tough opponent.
“We have to fight nerves and play our own game,” he said. “It’s about time that we take the next step, and we have to take the match against a strong team like Croatia as an opportunity.” (Yonhap News)