(ATTN: ADDS photo, details, comments throughout)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 22 (Yonhap) -- There were few surprises as South Korea on Monday announced its 23-man roster for the AFC Asian Cup, the continent's largest football tournament scheduled to kick off next month in Australia.
Head coach Uli Stielike, who once said he could make some picks that could catch people off guard, instead took the safer route, assigning some familiar faces the task of ending South Korea's 55-year drought at the Asian Cup.
There will be 16 nations at the Asian Cup, divided into four groups of four. South Korea has been paired in Group A with host Australia, Oman and Kuwait. South Korea's quest for the elusive continental title will begin against Oman on Jan. 10 in Canberra.
South Korea will stay in Canberra to take on Kuwait on Jan. 13. The Group A finale will be against Australia in Brisbane on Jan. 17.
Stielike's 23-man roster is made up of three goalkeepers, eight defenders, nine midfielders and three forwards.
The midfield corps features the usual suspects in Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng, with 66 international matches to date, and Bolton Wanderers veteran Lee Chung-yong, who has played in 64 international contests. Son Heung-min, the dynamic winger for Bayer Leverkusen, has also been named.
Lee Jeong-hyeop, an unheralded forward for the South Korean military club Sangju Sangmu, qualifies as the only surprise pick on the team. He is also the only player on the current team without prior international experience. He scored four goals in 25 matches for Sangju Sangmu in 2014.
The squad is heavy with players based in overseas leagues. Six players are based in Europe, six are in the Middle East and five others are in Asian leagues outside South Korea. Six players are playing in the domestic league.
Of the 23, 12 were on the FIFA World Cup squad in June, when South Korea exited the group stage with a draw and two losses.
Stielike had earlier said he was aware of South Korea's goal-scoring woes and had bemoaned the general lack of talent in the forward position.
Two potential candidates for the striker spot, Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Kim Shin-wook of Ulsan Hyundai, have been on the mend for the past month or so with leg injuries. Their status for the Asian Cup had been questionable for weeks.
Park Chu-young, the much-maligned forward who had a disastrous World Cup in Brazil in June, did make the national team for two road games in the Middle East last month but was left off for the Asian Cup.
The inconsistent forward hit a rough patch and has now gone six matches without a goal for his Saudi Arabian club, Al-Shabab.
Stielike picked El Jaish's Lee Keun-ho and Qatar SC's Cho Young-cheol as his other forwards. He explained that he made these choices for "strategic reasons." He said Cho can be South Korea's "False 9," a striker who can drop into midfield to create spacing problems for defenders. Lee leads the current squad with 19 international goals in 70 matches, and Stielike said he liked Lee's experience and energy.
As for Lee Jeong-hyeop, Stielike sees him as the team's target man on the front line.
"With Lee Dong-gook and Kim Shin-wook still recovering from their injuries, we wanted to pick players who offered different elements to our offense than other players," Stielike said. "And as a result of our search, we picked Lee Jeong-hyeop and decided to leave out Park Chu-young."
<YNAPHOTO path='C:/YNA/YNACLI~1/Down/Article/AEN20141222002551315_01_i.jpg' id='' title='' caption='Uli Stielike, head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, speaks during a press conference announcing the roster for the Asian Cup tournament on Dec. 22, 2014, in Seoul. (Yonhap)'/>
In lieu of a proven goal scorer up front aside from Lee Keun-ho, dynamic winger Son will be asked to carry the offensive load. The Bayer Leverkusen star has netted 11 goals in all club competitions this season and was easily South Korea's best player at the World Cup in Brazil.
Two goalkeepers from the World Cup, Jung Sung-ryong and Kim Seung-gyu, are back on the squad, along with Kim Jin-hyeon.
Defender Cha Du-ri is the oldest member on the team at 34. He has said he plans to retire from international play after the Asian Cup. He is tied with forward Lee Keun-ho for most international matches played, with 70.
Stielike also pointed out that he has named some "versatile" players who could compete in multiple positions. For instance, Park Joo-ho of Mainz was named as a defender, but he has proven capable of playing as a defensive midfielder. Jang Hyeon-soo is a natural center back but can also play as a defensive midfielder.
Han Kyo-won, a 24-year-old midfielder for Jeonbuk who scored his first international goal under Stielike last month, is another intriguing selection. Stielike said he valued Han's work ethic and passion.
"He's a young and enthusiastic player who competes hard," the coach said. "Perhaps you may feel that he is lacking in techniques, and sometimes he loses his composure because he lets his passion get in the way. Still, a player like him can boost the team morale and spread some positive energy throughout the team.
Should South Korea advance to the quarterfinals, it will meet either the winner or the runner-up of Group B. The four teams in Group B are Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea.
South Korea will play Saudi Arabia on Jan. 4 in Sydney for its final tune-up match before the Asian Cup.
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