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(News Focus) Olympic football coach looking for ways to improve defense

All News 18:28 April 28, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, April 28 (Yonhap) -- With the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games less than 100 days away, South Korean Olympic football team head coach Shin Tae-yong has a lot of homework to do.

While analyzing his Group C opponents -- Mexico, Germany and Fiji -- is important, Shin's ultimate task will be completing his 18-man squad with a stout defense before going to Brazil.

The men's Olympic football tournament of 16 nations is open to players under the age of 23, but teams can also field up to three players who are over the age limit, known as "wild cards."

Shin has said one of the wild cards will be Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min, and during a press conference on Tuesday he said the two remaining wild card slots can be used to beef up their shaky defense.

In 2016, the U-23 South Korea have scored 21 goals and conceded six in 10 matches. Though the stats may point to adequate defense, fans have expressed concerns that South Korea will struggle against stronger opponents at the Olympics with the current defensive unit.

What worries Shin the most is that the team's key defenders are not playing regularly with their professional clubs.

"Since our defenders are not playing competitive matches these days with their clubs, I'm thinking about reinforcing our defense line (with wild cards)," he said at the press meeting marking the 100-day countdown to the Rio Games. "In major tournaments, you can't get a good result without having a solid defense."

Particularly, Shin's team is thin on full backs. After two friendly matches against Algeria in March, the 45-year-old coach pointed out that left back Sim Sang-min and right back Lee Seul-chan need to improve their performance, but so far both have been quiet with their clubs in the top-flight K League Classic.

Sim is with the league leader FC Seoul, but he hasn't played a single match this season, as veterans Ko Kwang-min and Kim Chi-woo have been covering the left flank. Also, the 22-year-old has yet to feature at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League where Seoul sealed the knockout stage berth recently.

Lee has played three matches for the Jeonnam Dragons this season, but in two of the occasions he came on as a second-half substitute.

The situation with the center backs is not much better. Yeon Jei-min, who was the team captain at the AFC U-23 Championships in January, hasn't played a league match for the Suwon Samsung Bluewings this season, while Goo Hyeon-joon of Busan IPark and Jung Seung-hyun of Ulsan Hyundai have played only two and three matches, respectively.

To boost their readiness for the Olympics, Shin said he hopes professional teams will release their players early for the U-23 squad, so that they can gear up for the big tournament with plenty of time. But it remains uncertain whether his proposal will be accepted by the K League clubs.

Local pundits expect that Shin will have to solve the defensive problem by selecting at least one experienced player, if not two, as wild cards. The coach previously said he has five candidates in mind, though he didn't reveal the names.

"Shin can use one wild card on the center back and another on the full back," said KBS football commentator Hahn June-hea. "But in that case, the team will waste their chance to pick a powerful finisher."

Among the candidates, FC Augsburg defender back Hong Jeong-ho has been widely regarded as a possible wild card pick. The 26-year-old missed the 2012 London Games -- where South Korea claimed their first-ever Olympic football medal with a bronze -- due to injury, though he had been the team captain during the qualifiers.

"If I can get a chance, I really want to go to the Olympics," Hong said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in March. "If I can compete at the Olympics, I want to create a good atmosphere and guide young players as a veteran."

But Hong isn't the answer for South Korea's problem on the flanks, as he mainly plays in the center. Hahn from KBS said it won't be easy to find a good wild card candidate for the full back position.

"The senior national team also has problems on defense because its full backs are struggling to feature for their respected clubs," Hahn said. "Considering South Korea faces Germany in the group match, those who know about German players could have an advantage, but you never know."

The ideal answer for Shin's side will be finding a player who can cover both sides of the flanks and can also control young players from the back. But so far no defender has caught the coach's eyes with such skills.

Shin said he will persuade even those who have completed their military service to join the Olympic team as wild cards. For South Korean male athletes, winning an Olympic medal not only brings honor but also an exemption from mandatory military service and this is considered to be an extra motivator for them. Athletes who already have their exemptions may not have the same determination, but Shin said he will try to push the right buttons.

"Honestly, a handful of good players already got their military exemptions by winning the Asian Games gold or the bronze at the London Olympics," Shin said Tuesday. "But it's the coach's job to bring in players who are willing to sacrifice themselves for this team."

Shin, who is also an assistant to the senior team coach Uli Stielike, said he wants to pick his wild cards before South Korea play a four-nation invitational tournament sometime in May and June during FIFA's International Match days.

Shin will find out what his wild card options are when he discusses the matter with Stielike and the Korea Football Association (KFA) technical committee head Lee Yong-soo next month.

"If I don't get a good result at the Rio Games, I know I will be criticized heavily," he said. "But I will prepare hard to deliver delight and excitement to fans here."

kdon@yna.co.kr
(END)

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