The saying goes that championships aren’t won on paper, but on the field. Or something like that. With the Olympic opening ceremony in less than three days, Korea will look to make good on that adage when they start their first soccer match. Korea has long been viewed as an underdog, but this Olympic edition should field Korea’s best team, possibly ever. But just how good are they? Do they stand a realistic chance at advancing past group stage and even earning a medal? Let’s break it down.
Starter: Park Chu-Young
Reserve: Kim Hyun-Sung
Manager Hong Myung-Bo will employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, and the recently returned Park Chu-Young will start as the lone centre forward. Park’s recent chronicles are well documented on this site, but since his return Park has scored a goal both against New Zealand and Senegal. Park isn’t 100% back in form, but his presence is critical as he is Korea’s best forward. His ability to finish his scoring chances (and he will have chances) is crucial to this team’s success. Kim Hyun-Sung will back up Park but most likely will not see major minutes, as he hasn’t necessarily inspired confidence to play a major role at an international level yet.
Starters: Kim Bo-Kyung (LW), Koo Ja-Cheol (CM), Nam Tae-Hee (RW), Ki Sung-Yeung (CDM), Park Jung-Woo (CDM)
Reserves: Ji Dong-Won, Baek Sung-Dong, Han Kook-Young*, Jung Woo-Young
Without a doubt, Korea will live and die with the play of its midfield. An argument can be made that Korea’s defense (or lack of) is just as critical, but this corp of midfielders will determine how far Korea will advance in this tournament. With four players currently playing in Europe (pending Kim Bo-Kyung’s move to Cardiff City), this is a young but internationally experienced group.
Manager Hong correctly adjusted the starting XI in the Senegal friendly, inputting Kim Bo-Kyung and Nam Tae-Hee on the LW and RW, respectively, and relegating Ji Dong-Won to the bench. Dong-Won’s recently play has been rather disappointing, and his inclusion in the starting XI at LW weakens the offense, and leaves Bo-Kyung as an inverted RW. However, with Dong-Won on the bench, Bo-Kyung will be playing in his natural left side, and Nam will be able to continue to provide pace down the right wing.
Koo Ja-Cheol is the captain of this squad, taking the armband after Hong Jeong-Ho’s horrific knee injury, and will play in the “#9″ role of this squad. Koo may not be what you call a traditional target man #9, but his ability to facilitate and maintain offensive possession is one of the main keys to this squad’s success. Watch particular attention to how Koo works the offensive balance between himself, Park Chu-Young, and Ki Sung-Yeung. The effectiveness of this combination is what Korea will need to survive and advance.
The only player that could possibly be more vital than Koo to the Korean squad is Ki Sung-Yeung. Ki dictates the tempo and transition of this offense, which in case you haven’t noticed, is the team’s strength, with his passing and movement. Korea loves to overload the wings with their fullbacks, and slowly work their way into the box using triangles and runs with their wingers. Ki is the lynchpin behind the attack, and how he fares in this tournament is quite possibly the singular key to Korea’s success.
Ji Dong-Won and Baek Sung-Dong will be the main options off the bench for Korea. Given Ji’s recent struggles, don’t be entirely surprised with Baek supplants him as the primary midfield substitute. Han Kook-Young was recently injured (on Monday), and will be replaced by Jung Woo-Young, which is really a shame because Han was employed as the primary substitute before his injury, but now will miss the entire Olympics.
Starters: Yoon Suk-Young (LB), Kim Young-Kwon (CB), Hwang Suk-Ho (CB), Kim Chang-Soo (RB)
Reserves: Oh Jae-Suk, Jang Hyun-Soo
Uhh, can we just skip this part? The defense is by far the weakest link of the team, and recent injuries have not helped. Original Olympic team captain Hong Jeong-Ho was the most talented player on defense, but his knee injury cost him any chance whatsoever at anchoring this back line. It’s a patchwork group, and they will have to prove they’re capable of marking the opposition if Korea does not want to get blown away.
However, Yoon Suk-Young and Kim Chang-Soo both have recently shown the ability to get forward and run down the line in offensive transition. Yoon, specifically, has been displaying a good feel around the box, and his play has been rather impressive in the two friendlies leading up to the Olympics. These fullbacks will have their hands full defensively, and will have to be on their best to not get caught in playing the offside trap game and getting burned by better competition. They’ll be tested right away on Thursday, as Mexico’s Giovanni Dos Santos will look to wreak havoc with his speed.
Starters: Jung Sung-Ryong
Reserves: Lee Bum-Young
Jung has been a mainstay on the senior team for quite some time and was also a member of the 2010 World Cup and 2008 Olympic squad. Only 27 years old, Jung is an above average goalkeeper who occasionally struggles against crosses. Overall, having a good keeper is a must and Jung capably fits the bill.
Assuming Korea advances out of the group, much of their medal chances will depend on which team Korea will face in Group A. Uruguay, who are the prohibitive favorites to top Group A, features over-age selections Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavanni, both of whom are in their prime and peak form. Talented is an understatement to describe Uruguay. Needless to say, they will be extremely difficult to beat if matched up with Korea. Great Britain, assuming they are the other team to advance in Group A, is a much more favorable matchup for Korea to advance to the semis.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, this initial game vs Mexico is an enormous litmus test. Although El Tri is without Javier Hernandez, Mexico has plenty of talent and speed. Mexico’s offense, particularly Dos Santos, loves to run in diagonal cuts to run past the defense. Korea’s ability to close their defensive line, and opening up to overload on offense, is crucial to containing Mexico’s attack. If they can just draw against Mexico, Korea will be in great position to dictate their own destiny in their group and not only advancing, but possibly topping their group.
How so? Two reasons – first, Korea is by far the most experienced squad in group B. Don’t believe it? Here’s the national cap breakdown by team:
226 caps – Korea
219 caps – Mexico
115 caps – Gabon
93 caps – Switzerland
Before you go up in arms about Mexico, 103 and 59 of those caps come from Carlos Salcido and Giovanni Dos Santos. That leaves a whopping 57 caps for the rest of the team.
The second reason for optimism is that the Swiss, considered the next toughest team, is an extremely young and inexperienced side, hurt further by the fact that their two best players, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami, are not on the Olympic squad, as the Switzerland Football Association excused both players from the Olympics so they can transition to their new league clubs. And while not much is known about Gabon, their squad is running into injury and club problems of late.
So there you have it. While this Korean squad might seem like underdogs, a further look reveals that Korea actually stands a fighting chance at advancing and moving onto the elimination stages. As we know, anything can happen from there.
As if playing for national pride isn’t enough, these U-23 Korean players will for a chance at military exemption as well. Earning any medal, regardless of color, earns them an exemption from mandatory military service. That’ll save Hong Myung-Bo from saying any pre-game pep talk.
Regardless, everything is wiped clean once the countdown is over and the game starts on Thursday. No medal is given on paper. Korea will have to earn it on the field.