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Energetic offense carries S. Korea into 8th straight Olympics

All News 05:00 January 27, 2016

DOHA, Jan. 26 (Yonhap) -- An energetic offense, led by rising stars demonstrating ability to adapt on the fly, carried well-coached South Korea into their eighth consecutive Olympic men's football tournament.

South Korea defeated host Qatar 3-1 in the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship in Doha on Tuesday, earning one of three Asian berths at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The championship also served as the regional Olympic qualification tournament, with only the top three finishers earning their tickets to Brazil.

No other nation has qualified for eight Olympics in a row in men's football. Italy made it to seven consecutive Summer Games on two different occasions, most recently from 1984 to 2008.

In Qatar, head coach Shin Tae-yong, an offensive wizard during his club career in South Korea, worked wonders with a squad that, on paper, was considered the country's least talented U-23 unit in a long time.

Shin called for an aggressive play all the way from his defensive backs to the front line. The players responded in kind by producing goals with creative passes and movements, the likes of which had hardly been seen in this age group.

Shin's midfielders have done all the scoring. All three goal scorers against Qatar, Ryu Seung-woo, Kwon Chang-hoon and Moon Chang-jin, are midfielders. Kwon and Moon are tied for the team lead with four goals apiece, while Ryu has three goals himself. South Korea's one other goal has also come from a midfielder, Kim Seung-jun.

Fullbacks Lee Seul-chan and Sim Sang-min never shied away from opportunities to jump in on the attack. It was Lee's penetration and sharp cross that set up Kwon's 89th-minute goal that broke the 1-1 deadlock against Qatar. It was but one of several examples where South Korean backs stretched the opposing defense and allowed the attackers to capitalize on extra space.

Forward Hwang Hee-chan celebrated his 20th birthday on Tuesday with another fine performance. After suffering an ankle injury in the quarterfinals against Jordan, Hwang began the semifinals on the bench. When he entered the field in the 79th minute, the offense received a much-needed jolt.

On Kwon's go-ahead goal, Hwang had the control of the ball at the top of the box and drew multiple defenders to himself before passing it over to forward Kim Hyun, who then found Lee Seul-chan open on the right side for the cross. Hwang assisted on Moon's final goal with a similar play, showing the kind of unselfishness that has made him a major part of the offense without a goal to his credit. Hwang's ability to create chances off the dribble has also been a boon to his teammates in midfield.

Hwang and Co. have also been able to adapt and adjust on the fly. Shin has used different formations depending on his opponents and also felt compelled to alter them during matches when the situation called for it.

Case in point: South Korea opened the tournament against Uzbekistan with a 4-4-2 setting, featuring a diamond-shaped midfield. In the second contest against Yemen, a clear-cut underdog that South Korea were expected to defeat, Shin came out with a 4-1-4-1 formation, crowding his front line with one striker and four attacking midfielders. Over the course of the match -- a 5-0 win for South Korea -- the coach didn't stop tinkering, switching to 4-3-3 and to 4-4-2 formations.

Against Qatar, South Korea started with three backs in a 3-4-3 setting, before going back to 4-4-2 in the second half.

Shin unleased his 20-something players and encouraged open communication among themelves, and also with the coaching staff. It was a significant departure from the top-down hierarchical approach from the past, when young players could barely look their coaches in the eye.

After South Korea squeezed past Jordan 1-0 in the quarterfinals last Saturday despite a dismal second half, Shin chose not to point fingers in the locker room and instead asked the players to think about what they'd done wrong, so they could all discuss it in the open the following day.

Shin later said he wanted to encourage them to be in control of their own performance and be more proactive in trying to correct their problems.

And the players found their answers in time for the match against Qatar. The one Qatar goal notwithstanding, the defense was much more solid and efficient, and helped clinch the historic Olympic berth.


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