Disjointed Korea left needing a miracle

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

There were a couple of poignant moments that perfectly summed up the probable end to Korea’s World Cup campaign.

Saturday’s 2-1 defeat here in Rostov-on-Don leaves the team facing the almost impossible task of beating Germany (and scoring twice in the process) and needing Mexico to defeat Sweden as well.

The first came as the side went into the break trailing to a Carlos Vela penalty. As the staff and players made their way up the tunnel, one man hobbled over to the sideline, alone, and greeted each of his team-mates as they left the pitch.

That was the injured left-back Park Joo-ho, who speaking to Fox Sports Asia after
full-time, told of the personal heartbreak of seeing yet another World Cup impacted by injury. He and several others that have carried the torch for Korean football could well have seen close to their final action.

“It’s a difficult moment with some young players and maybe the time has come for those players to take over, but at least we can say that we didn’t give up in this match,” he said.

“For me though I’m so sad about this injury. I tried my best to do what I can for the team and you know that players always wait for the World Cup. With the last World Cup, I also had an injury so it’s just so sad right now.”

Bizarrely, coach Shin Tae-yong, speaking post-match, also referenced the missing players who were injured both prior to and during the World Cup saying that when he looked across at the substitute’s bench he wished they were present.

“I thought about those players and felt that if they were here then maybe Son Heung-min wouldn’t have been so isolated and we could have played better if they weren’t injured,” he said.

During the buildup and then the tournament itself where Shin Tae-young’s comments have been somewhere between cryptic and downright odd, this tournament of disjointed performances was capped by the coach himself in the 80th minute.

With a loose ball falling straight at his feet and keen to have a quick throw-in taken, he attempted to chip it straight to one of his players standing barely two metres away, but the ball skied off his shoe and flew out over the advertising boards. It was a perfect metaphor for a tournament where little has gone right for one of Asia’s
leading nations.

For the first 20 minutes against a dynamic Mexican side they were hard-working and well-organised, but after conceding that penalty midway through the half, many of the problems from the first match also re-appeared.

The narrow 4-4-2 that they played worked well in shutting down Mexico centrally, but as soon as they started playing diagonally with the full-backs pushing on, they caused Korean no end of problems.

At the other end, the over-reliance of Son Heung-min’s team-mates to funnel the ball to him as often as possible and the Tottenham star’s willingness to try to do too many things by himself, also stymied an attack that far too often broke down at the point of getting into solid positions.

Indeed, it was Son’s attempt to try and dribble his way past three defenders that saw the side dispossessed and which led to the opening Mexican goal.

At another point during the second half, Hwang Hee-chan found himself in a good position inside the box but rather than shooting, tried to play the ball to Son, who was in a far less favourable position and once again the play broke down.

Most worryingly of all was just how physically exhausted the team looked.

Admittedly it was a scorching 36 degrees in southern Russia and with plenty of humidity as well, but having claimed post-match that the team had weather data for every day over the past five years, the coaching staff should have been prepared for these kinds of conditions.

As it was, at the end of the 90 minutes only Son, Ki-Sung-yueng and defender Jang Hyun-soo (all of whom play abroad) were left standing. The other players were sprawled on the pitch, a ball of exhaustion – and that after having played at walking pace against a lively Mexican side for much of the final 20 minutes.

In amongst a throng of oles during the final 10 minutes of the match, something else unusual happened – from a Mexican perspective – as the huge number of fans, many of whom have been persistent in wanting the Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio removed, all suddenly started chanting his name in unison.

At the same time, the Korean coach who has been tactically out-thought in both matches and uttered a string of highly awkward public statements, was busy kicking the ball in the wrong direction.

It could well be close to the final act he has in charge of the national team at the end of a campaign that’s gone as most expected it would.

Almost certainly, there will be a disappointing early exit unless this fractured side (with captain Ki also set to join the injured brigade) need a miracle to keep their faint hopes alive.

Frankly, it’s hard to see that happening.

Which Asian teams have best chance of making last 16?

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden assesses the chances of Asia’s representatives at the upcoming World Cup.

There are five Asian teams at the 2018 World Cup, the highest ever. Yet quantity does not equal quality and it remains to be seen which of the quintet have the best chance to make it out of the group stage and into the last 16. Time will be the best referee in determining what happens but there is nothing wrong with a quick discussion about who may make it and who may fall short.

5. Saudi Arabia

Ranking: 67
Group A: Russia (66) , Uruguay, (17) Egypt (46)

Reasons to be cheerful: The group could have been a lot trickier. Russia are by some distance the weakest of the top seeds and playing the hosts on the opening day of the tournament may be a blessing. Uruguay are good but not quite as good as in recent years. Egypt are no pushovers but getting a result against their Arabian rivals is not impossible. There have been some decent results and performances in recent weeks, expectations are not cripplingly high and overall fitness and work ethic is improving.

But: The Saudis are the lowest ranked of all the 32 teams, the squad is entirely domestic-based, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is the third in the past nine months and the lack of quality strikers is such a problem that Pizzi has only selected two. The 3-0 loss to Peru on Sunday was a blow after some encouraging performances.

4. South Korea

Ranking: 60
Group F: Germany (1), Sweden (23), Mexico (15)

Reasons to be cheerful: Korea doesn’t mind playing against teams from northern Europe and is capable of getting something against the Swedes. The Taeguk Warriors also have a decent historic record against Mexico and then there is the hope that Germany will already be in the second round by the time they meet. If Son Heung-min, Lee Seung-woo and Lee Jae-sung all perform to their potential – quite a big if – then there is a chance especially as the usual pressure to succeed is absent this time.

But: The team is short of quality in a number of areas as was apparent in a qualification campaign that is best forgotten. Preparation has not been great, though not terrible, and the recent rash of injuries has been cruel. On top of that, there is a defence that can look as confused as first time visitors to a Korean BBQ restaurant.

3. Iran

Ranking: 36
Group B: Morocco (42), Portugal (4), Spain (8)

Reasons to be cheerful: As Asia’s best team, Iran have plenty to be happy about. The team glided through qualification and boast a top-rated coach in Carlos Queiroz who has been in place for seven years. During that time, Team Melli have become increasingly cosmopolitan, internationally experienced and respected around the world.

But: The group is tough. The opening game against Morocco is not going to be easy but it is seen as by some distance the easiest. Fail to win that and then Iran are going to have to defeat either Spain or Portugal. If the team were firing on all cylinders then there would be more confidence but preparations have gone from uninspiring to almost unbelievable with friendlies cancelled and a 2-1 recent loss to Turkey hinted that the defence may not be as rock solid as assumed.

2. Japan

Ranking: 61
Group H: Colombia (16), Senegal (28), Poland (10)

Reasons to be cheerful: The group is open and passable. Japan are packed full of talent with unrivalled European experience and household names such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki even if they are no longer as influential as they were. The defence looks pretty settled and there are options in midfield. Fractious coach Vahid Halilhodzic was fired in April and team spirit should improve as a result.

But: The performance in the recent friendly defeat by Ghana was depressing. In-form players have not all been chosen and Japan look stale and short of ideas. New coach Akira Nishino may be seen as a safe pair of hands but does he have the ability to inspire the players to perform to the necessary levels? The big names have not always produced the goods in recent years.

1. Australia

Ranking: 40
Group C: France (7) , Peru (11), Denmark (12)

Reasons to be cheerful: Bert Van Marwijk is not a man to excite and enthuse a nation that had become accustomed to the more open football under predecessor Ange Postecoglou but he has led his native Netherlands to a World Cup final. But what you get is a man who will do whatever it takes to get the right results. Last week’s 4-0 win over the Czech Republic was hugely encouraging, great for confidence and showed that the Socceroos don’t rely on Tim Cahill for goals. Peru and Denmark are good teams but nothing to be scared of.

But: France are a tough opener and are capable of handing the Aussies a deflating defeat just as Germany did in 2010. Peru are flying high with the return of Paolo Guerrero while Denmark have a top-class matchwinner in Christian Eriksen. This Socceroo edition does not have the overall quality of past teams and will have to be at their best.

Asian fans should cheer for Japan and Korea at World Cup

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden reckons Japanese and Korean success in Russia will help to prove Asian coaches can mix it with the best.

For the first time ever, Asia will have five teams at a World Cup. If Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t make it through then maybe Australia will. If the Socceroos don’t survive the first round then there are still South Korea and Japan to come.

With five horses in the race then the odds are not bad. If there are only to be one or two that make it over the first hurdle to continue running into the knockout stage, then it is best for Asian football that it is Japan and/or South Korea. Neutral fans from the world’s biggest continent should get behind the Taeguk Warriors and the Samurai Blue.

This does not mean that they are the best bet for success, that is open for debate. Iran have been the continent’s number one team for some time though have one of the tougher groups at the World Cup with Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Saudi Arabia are the lowest-ranked of all the 32 teams at the tournament but have been handed a reasonably easy group and have collected a couple of decent friendly results of late, defeating Algeria and Greece 2-0. Australia are the Asian champions and while France will be tough, finishing above Peru and Denmark to take second is not mission impossible.

South Korea find themselves in a difficult looking pot with Sweden, Mexico and Germany. While Japan are in the most open group of all with Poland, Senegal and Colombia.

But if there are to be two teams that do make it, better it is Korea and Japan. These are the only two of the five with local coaches at the respective helms. If Shin Tae-yong and Akira Nishino can lead the their teams through the group stage and into the last 16 then it will give the reputation of Asian coaching a much-needed boost.

Think of the most famous coaches in the world and few, if any, Asian names will spring to mind –even in Asia. The world’s biggest continent is very much an importer of tactical knowhow and rarely exports.

At home, it can be a struggle for locals to get the glamour jobs. The big Chinese Super League clubs rarely appoint Chinese coaches, preferring names such as Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello and Felix Magath despite the fact they are many times more expensive than the domestic choices.

Japan and Korea are, ironically, two leagues that are perfectly happy to hand out domestic hotseats to local backsides. Shin and Nishino could do wonders for the reputation of Asian coaching around Asia. The sight of two well-known tacticians, both past Asian Champions League winners, in the knockout stage would show that there is local talent. It could also do wonders for the reputation of Asian coaching around the world. Even around the fringes of the big leagues if Europe, there has been little to no Asian influence.

That is partly down to history, reputation and stereotype from the European side. Asian coaches are unknown and the assumption is that there is nothing much to know.

Relative success in 2010 helped a little. Huh Jung-moo and Takeshi Okada took the two East Asian rivals to the last 16 in South Africa and both could even have gone to the last eight. Neither were of an age to venture overseas. Huh was coming to the end of his coaching career and Okada was approaching his mid-fifties.

That success meant that by the time the 2014 World Cup rolled around, there was a little more interest in the great hope of Asian coaching in 2014. Hong Myung-bo was the coach of South Korea and it was felt that he could be the perfect pioneer for Asian coaching.

Here was a man who had captained Korea to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, his fourth appearance at the competition. He had played football for LA Galaxy and had the kind of charisma and confidence that any Asian coach is going to need if they are going to have a chance in Europe. He was young, spoke English and had taken the U23 team to an Olympic medal at the 2012 London games. But Brazil was a disaster and it was back to square one.

So it is time to repeat 2010. It is only a matter of time before we see Asian coaches heading to Europe. It is a necessary step in the development of the continental game but if Korea and Japan and their homegrown hands can do the business in Russia then that time may come sooner rather than later.

Our guide to Asian teams at the U20 World Cup

South Korea will become the sixth Asian nation to host the prestigious FIFA Under 20s World Cup, when the tournament gets underway this weekend.

While all eyes are on the hosts and their chances of progression, there are four other Asian nations vying for success in the biennial showpiece of youth football.

In the 20 prior editions of the tournament, 18 different AFC nations have qualified for the finals, but only four (excluding Australia in their OFC days) have ever reached the semi-finals. Two of those – the hosts plus Japan – will be aiming to match that feat over the coming month.

Joining the two North Asian powerhouses are Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rapidly improving Vietnam. Fox Sports Asia takes a look at the chances of each at the international showpiece.

KOREA REPUBLIC

QUALIFIED AS: Hosts

BEST PERFORMANCE: Fourth Place (1983)

COACH: SHIN Tae-yong (Former national midfielder who won the ACL in 2010 as boss of Seongnam)

STAR PLAYER: LEE Seung-woo (Barcelona reared prodigy who is hailed as one of the most exciting young prospects on the continent. The attacking midfielder or forward is a regular in the Spanish giant’s youth setup where he wears the number 10 and was a key contributor in the team’s run to the semifinals of this year’s UEFA Youth League)

ONE TO WATCH: LEE Jin-hyeon (The very definition of a late bolter for the squad as he hadn’t been involved in the national setup until a final warm-up tournament last month where he was one of the stars in wins over fellow U20 finalists Honduras and Zambia. A creative midfielder with a delightful left foot and impressive close control, he was plucked by Shin Tae-yong out of a local university side and could now be set to start on the right of a midfield 4-3-3)

OVERVIEW: The hosts have played a seemingly endless string of warm-up tournaments and although they came with mixed squads and mixed results, the most recent games against fellow finalists produced strong results and performances. There is quality across the squad but in Jeonnam midfielder Han Chan-hee and Barcelona prodigy Lee, it’s in midfield and the forward lines where the hosts look to have their greatest class. They should be good enough to get out of the group and from there, a ‘soft’ matchup looks possible in the second round.

PREDICTION: Quarterfinals

JAPAN

QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 champion

BEST PERFORMANCE: Runners-up (1999)

COACH: Atsushi UCHIYAMA (Vastly experienced former national midfielder who spent almost a decade and a half at various coaching roles with J.League side Jubilo before being a staff coach with the JFA at varying age groups since 2013)

STAR PLAYER: Koki OGAWA (Whilst wingers Ritsu Doan and Koji Miyoshi have shone this year, including in the ACL, one player who has really stood out domestically has been the young Jubilo forward Ogawa. Japan have no shortage of talented creative midfielders but what they’ve always struggled with is producing pure finishers. They have a very exciting prospect in the 19-year-old Jubilo frontman who is a powerful striker with good movement. He’s sharp both on the ground and in the air and he’ll be the team’s main goal threat in Korea.)

ONE TO WATCH: Yuta NAKAYAMA (Japan have struggled to produce central defenders in recent years, as well as strikers. Nakayama is part of an outrageously youthful back-line at J.League side Kashiwa where he is a
regular for the second successive season. He has already won plaudits for his sound reading of the play, one-on- one tackling and distribution)

OVERVIEW: As Asian champions, Japan should enter this tournament with high expectations and this crop of players is one of the best in recent times – arguably stretching back to the ‘Golden Generation’ that reached the final in 1999. Barcelona prodigy Takefusa Kubo, 15, is the second youngest player at the tournament and if given a chance he could have an impact. But this is a balanced side, many of whom have several years of professional football under their belts. They should expect, at a minimum, to progress from the group.

PREDICTION: Round of 16.

SAUDI ARABIA

QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 Runners-up

BEST PERFORMANCE: Round of 16 (2011)

COACH: Saad AL SHEHRI (As a player he participated in this tournament back in 1999 before injury curtailed a promising career. He made his way into youth coaching where he’s regarded as an erudite, patient, manager)

STAR PLAYER: Sami AL NAJI (The team’s captain has already established himself in the first team squad at Saudi powerhouse Al Nassr. For the youth national team he’s a key presence in the up-tempo, fast pressing style of play that the side likes to employ, whether in a deeper midfielder station or in a more attack-minded role as he tended to play at the AFC U-19 championships. He top scored there with four goals)

ONE TO WATCH: Abdulrahman AL-YAMI (In the best tradition of Saudi frontman, the 19-year-old Al Hilal forward is an aggressive, dynamic, presence who loves to harry and pressure opposing defences and then pounce where he’s able to use his energetic style and eye for goal. He’s likely to be the main outlet in the goalscoring department for the young Green Falcons in Korea)

OVERVIEW: Speaking after they lost to Japan in the AFC U-19 championships last year, the coach Al Shehri, said he was pleased that his team could show the ‘modern’ version of Saudi football. When it works, it works well – a team that loves to harry and close down opposition space, forcing turnovers where they can, then launch rapid counters with their pace and power in the two advanced lines. They may not be favoured by many but they have both a physically skilled side as well as some dangerous players going forward. If they can maintain their shape and discipline at the back, they’re capable of reaching the second round.

PREDICTION: Round of 16

IRAN

QUALIFIED AS: AFC Under-19 Semifinalists

BEST PERFORMANCE: Group Stage (1977, 2001)

COACH: Amir Hossein PEYROVANI (The former striker has spent much of his coaching career as an assistant at various club sides and this looms as a huge test of his managerial qualities)

STAR PLAYER: Omid NOORAFKAN (Only a last minute change of heart from his club side, Esteghlal, allowed the supremely gifted central midfielder to join the national team in Korea as they were desperate to hold onto their young star for next week’s ACL Round of 16 tie against Al Ain. A lanky yet agile deep lying playmaker, he sits at the base of the midfield and has the ability to dictate play with his outstanding left foot and wide range of passing. He will be the key cog for this Iranian side in Korea)

ONE TO WATCH: Reza SHEKARI (Hailed as one of the brightest young Iranian talents after he burst onto the scene 18 months ago in his homeland with Zob Ahan, a messy dispute with Russian Premier League side FC Rostov has seen the 18-year-old suffer from a lack of game time. Even so, the attacking midfielder or second striker has the class and poise on the ball to be a star for this under prepared Iranian side)

OVERVIEW: Remarkably for a nation that has had such success at senior level, this is just the third time that they’ve even qualified for the finals of the U-20 World Cup. In their past two appearances, they won just the lone match and much as the senior team has long been plagued by poor preparation so too have Team Melli Javanan. It’s been hampered with domestic clubs squabbling over releasing players for warm-up matches. Indeed, they began their final training camp with less than a dozen players in attendance – all signs that point to an early exit despite a moderate looking group and some talented individuals.

PREDICTION: Group Stage

VIETNAM

QUALIFIED AS: AFC U-19 Semifinalists

BEST PERFORMANCE: No previous appearances

COACH: Hoang Anh Tuan

STAR PLAYER: Ho Minh Di (The pint-sized playmaker is likely to be one of the smallest players at the tournament but what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in skill. A dynamic attacking presence on the books of leading local club Hanoi, the 19-year- old is likely to be the creative hub in a 4-2-3-1. He has both the vision and passing to ensure Vietnam remain competitive)

ONE TO WATCH: Ha Duc Chinh (Previously known by the less than friendly nickname ‘Wooden Leg’ the 19-year-old has come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of years. He’s now both the leading threat in front of goal for the national youth team and a regular at his club side Da Nang. He’ll need to fire here if Vietnam are to progress from the group)

OVERVIEW: The growth in Vietnamese football has flown under the radar even in Southeast Asia let alone on a broader regional or international level. But the fruits of some extensive youth development work is being born in this outstanding crop of players that have already created history by reaching the finals of an (outdoor) FIFA tournament for the first time. The buildup has been extensive, including a training camp in Germany. Although recent results have been mixed and injuries have struck at exactly the wrong time, this is arguably one of the finest groups of players ever presented by a Southeast Asian nation. Drawn with a nation they have strong ties to in France, as well as Honduras and New Zealand, a third-placed finish may see them through to the second round. Despite outside expectations, this supremely talented group have the quality to reach that target.

PREDICTION: Round of 16.

Ricardo Ratliffe could be a real game-changer for the Star Hotshots

For Korean basketball fans, the name Ricardo Ratliffe isn’t strange. It has, in fact, become somewhat of a household name for hardcore Korean hoop nuts. Think of Ratliffe as the Korean Basketball League’s answer to someone like, say, Marqus Blakely, who has been a ubiquitous PBA import (interestingly enough, Blakely is currently playing in the KBL, too).

Ratliffe just finishes his tour of duty in the 2015-2016 KBL season after his Seoul Samsung Thunders got eliminated by Anyang KGC in the tournament quarterfinals. This season, Ratliffe averaged 20.2 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.1 blocks for Seoul Samsung, which is the second KBL team he has played for in his career.

Ratliffe rose to prominence in Korea when he was drafted by perennial powerhouse (think of them as the KBL equivalent of the San Miguel Beermen) Ulsan Mobis Phoebus for the 2012-2013 season. Ratliffe, who played alongside would-be GlobalPort import Rod Benson in his first KBL season, wowed the Koreans with solid numbers in his debut campaign – 14.8ppg, 8.5rpg, 1.4apg, and 1.1bpg on 64.1 FG%. More importantly, he helped Ulsan dethrone Anyang KGC as league champs.

Read: Star brings in ex-Jones Cup MVP Ricardo Ratliffe for grieving Denzel Bowles

That started a three-season reign for the club, with Ratliffe at the helm in each of those championship-clinching terms. In his exploits, Ratliffe has been teammates with Korean national team veterans like Yang Dong-Geun, Moon Tae-Young, and Ham Ji-Hoon, and he was even a candidate for naturalization with another KBL veteran, Aaron Haynes. He played on the Korean national side in the 2014 William Jones Cup and even bagged Tournament MVP in that competition.

Now the 6’8 native of Hampton, Virginia will finally debut in the PBA, where he is to replace decorated reinforcement Denzel Bowles. He joins a team that has been flush with controversy ever since former coach Tim Cone was moved to sister team Barangay Ginebra. Replacement tactician Jason Webb has had little success this season, with whispers of internal strife hounding the Star Hotshots at every corner. Webb has seemingly favored the team’s younger talents over its grizzled vets, which has fanned the flames of intrigue even more.

Read: Inspired James Yap tries to lead Star back on track

With Ratliffe bringing his high level of play and highly-regarded curriculum vitae to the equation, it’ll certainly be interesting if the Hotshots can turn things around. Before he came into the KBL for Ulsan in 2012, the Mobis Phoebus were a middling club, finishing among the top five in 2011-2012, but unable to get any significant breakthrough. Ratliffe’s entry proved to be the spark the team needed, and perhaps he can have the same effect again, but this time for the beleaguered Hotshots. – By Enzo Flojo

Follow this writer on Twitter: @hoopnut

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