SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Few players carry an entire nation’s hopes like Son Heung-min.
South Korea will be counting on the Tottenham forward's two-footed shooting ability and his scoring touch at this year's World Cup.
The 30-year-old forward started the Premier League season without a scoring a goal in eight games, but he seems to have regained his touch just in time for the tournament in Qatar.
The current group of players is arguably the best South Korea has ever assembled. Son is supported by several players in their 20s and early 30s getting regular minutes in European soccer.
Still, the South Koreans will head to Qatar as underdogs in a tough Group H with Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento’s critics say he has a rigid style of play that’s over-reliant on Son and struggles at times to maximize his skill set. The defense has also been less than stout.
Qatar marks South Korea’s 11th appearance at the World Cup and its 10th straight. The country has reached the knockout rounds only twice — making the semifinals at home in 2002, and the last 16 in the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
South Korea breezed through Asian qualifying but has looked underwhelming in recent friendlies, including a 2-2 draw against Costa Rica and a laborious 1-0 win over Cameroon in September.
Some have criticized the South Korean soccer association for failing to book warm-up matches with stronger opponents and deciding to host all the team’s friendlies since June at home.
South Korea’s run at the 2018 World Cup ended in the group stage. Son’s late goal capped off a 2-0 victory over Germany in the team's final group match to eliminate the defending champions, but the South Koreans still failed to advance.
"We will clearly be an underdog, but I hope we can create a real surprise for the stronger teams,” said Son, who will be playing at his third World Cup.
BUILDING AROUND SON
Son shared the Premier League scoring lead last season, but he has often struggled to be as loose and dangerous as he is with Tottenham when he's playing for his country.
Since taking over South Korea in 2018, Bento has experimented with various attack partners to fit with Son and now appears to have settled with a committee approach.
Hwang Ui-jo, a forward for Greek club Olympiakos, adds another natural scorer to the lineup. But Hwang doesn’t create space for Son like Jeonbuk Hyundai’s Cho Gue-sung can with his ability to win balls in the air and stretch defenders.
If Bento opts to sit deep and dial up defensive pressure against Uruguay or Portugal, he may pair Son with Freiburg forward Jeong Woo-yeong, who has the speed to chase balls and make plays across the field.
Wolverhampton’s Hwang Hee-chan and Mainz’s Lee Jae-sung are likely to start as wingers, while Olympiakos' Hwang In-beom pulls the strings from the midfield.
Bento wants his fullbacks to aggressively push forward and provide width to the attack. But the space they leave behind has also created defensive problems that South Korea has struggled to fix.
Jung Woo-young, a veteran of Qatari club Al Saad, has often looked taxed in his role as the lone defensive midfielder shielding the backline. The team has shown a tendency to gradually concede space as the game progresses and easily allow goals in transition.
Bento at least has a solid center back pairing. Kim Min-jae, who has looked impressive in his first season with Napoli, brings a rare combination of size, strength and speed. His partner, Kim Young-gwon, is one of the most experienced players on the team.
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