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(News Focus) S. Korean football left with work to do after friendlies in Europe

All News 18:50 June 07, 2016

By Joo Kyung-don

SEOUL, June 7 (Yonhap) -- After splitting two football friendly matches in Europe last week, South Korea have left themselves with some work to do ahead of the final Asian qualification round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in September.

The South Korean men's national football team, which returned home Tuesday after losing to Spain 6-1 but beating the Czech Republic 2-1, also showed some promise. These were South Korea's first matches against European teams since Uli Stielike took the helm in September 2014.

Before the friendlies, Stielike had said he wanted to find out the team's competitiveness on the world stage. The results showed there's a big gap between South Korea and the world's football elites, but it also showed that the Taeguk Warriors have the ability to make progress before entering the final regional World Cup qualification round.

Before facing Spain last Wednesday in Austria, South Korea had enjoyed a 16-match undefeated streak, along with 10 consecutive shutouts, though those results were mainly collected against Asian countries. But it didn't take long for the 50th-ranked South Korea to realize that they might just be a big fish in a small pond after they were trounced by the No. 6 Spain. This was the first time that South Korea surrendered six goals in a match since their 6-2 loss to Iran at the 1996 Asian Cup quarterfinals.

But South Korea silenced critics just four days later as they stunned the No. 30 Czech Republic in Prague. It was South Korea's first win over the Czechs after three draws and a 5-0 loss in 2001.

Stielike said it was meaningful that his players recovered their mental strength against the Czech Republic after suffering a crushing defeat to Spain, but admitted they were behind the Spaniards and the Czechs in terms of skills and technical ability. In particular, the German coach even said that South Korea will never reach the technical level of Spain.

"I know this will not be solved in a day or two, but our techniques were poor," Stielike said on Tuesday after arriving at Incheon International Airport. "I will also think about our ability to press opponents in small space."

For the matches against the two Euro 2016 contestants, Stielike came up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a high defensive line to press the opponents. But South Korea's tactics had little impact against Spain's skillful midfielders like Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas. Against the Czechs, South Korea played better both on offense and defense, but they struggled to take advantage in the second half after the hosts went down one man.

Stielike said the match results should not deceive the team's actual showing on the pitch. He added although South Korea had a big defeat against the Spaniards, the team's performance in the first 25 minutes was better than what they showed against the Czechs.

"Against Spain, we attacked aggressively, but our defensive line looked strained," he said. "Against the Czechs, our defense showed their fighting spirit, but our offense lacked delicate plays."

Stielike said that his task now will be harmonizing their fortes displayed at the friendlies before they enter the final regional World Cup qualifiers. South Korea are paired in Group A in the final round, along with Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria.

South Korean pundits pointed out that the team should have alternative plans if their original tactics don't work and core players struggle. For the friendlies, the South Korean squad had six footballers playing for European clubs, but most of them failed to impress.

"If our Europe-based players are struggling, South Korea can have a difficult time at the final round of World Cup qualifiers," said Kim Dae-gil, an analyst for the cable station KBS N. "I think Stielike needs a 'Plan B' for the qualifiers."

For each player, the friendlies were a good opportunity to make an impression on Stielike before entering the World Cup qualifiers, but not all did the job.

Of the 20-man squad, Stielike said FC Porto striker Suk Hyun-jun did his part, especially against the Czechs. The 24-year-old scored his fourth international goal on Sunday against veteran goalkeeper Petr Cech. Suk played only the second half against Spain, but was more aggressive than his rival forward Hwang Ui-jo.

"I think Suk showed his best performance (vs. the Czechs) since he joined us," Stielike said. "He ran a lot and scored when he got the chance."

Local pundits said that attacking midfielder Yoon Bitgaram also played a strong game against the Czechs, He opened the scoring with his curling right-footed free kick before he set up Suk for the 2-0 lead. The 26-year-old joined the national team for the first time since September 2012, filling the void of injured Koo Ja-cheol.

However, Stielike had different thoughts on Yoon, saying that the team should be careful about judging a player by his goals. Yoon was replaced in the 63rd minute against the Czechs. He didn't play against Spain.

"In his position, a player needs to deliver decisive passes," he said. "A player also shouldn't be afraid of physical contact with the opponents, although I think this is not only a problem for Yoon, but also for all other Asian players."

The players said that they learned a lot through these two matches and said South Korea should have more matches against the elites. Stielike previously said it will be nice for South Korea to have friendly matches with teams around No. 15 in FIFA rankings.

"I think it is important to have an away match with strong teams," forward Son Heung-min said. "If we advance to the World Cup, we are going to face these strong teams anyway, so we should be competitive against them."


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