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S. Korea take on China to open final World Cup qualifying round

All Headlines 12:16 August 29, 2016

SEOUL, Aug. 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will start a year-long journey to the 2018 FIFA World Cup this week against China, with an eye on reaching the sport's premium competition for the ninth consecutive time.

South Korea, ranked 48th in the latest FIFA world rankings, will host No. 78 China at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Thursday to open the final Asian qualifying round for the World Cup. South Korea will then face No. 105 Syria five days later on the road.

In the previous round, South Korea won Group G with a flawless record of eight straight wins -- which also includes a 3-0 forfeit victory over Kuwait. They scored 24 goals and conceded none in the seven matches played, not counting the forfeited match.

For the final regional qualification, South Korea are paired with Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria in Group A. They will play home-and-away under a round-robin format until September next year.

Group B teams are Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq and Thailand.

The winner and runner-up of each group will qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The two third-place teams will face each other over two matches, and the winner will take on the fourth-placed team from the fifth round of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) qualifiers in a two-legged inter-confederation playoff for the final chance to make the World Cup.

South Korea have played in every World Cup since 1986, the most consecutive appearances among Asian countries. The Taeguk Warriors will aim to finish inside the top two in their World Cup qualifying group and their first challenge is taking on up-and-coming China.

South Korea boast a dominant head-to-head record against China with 17 wins, 12 draws and one loss. South Korea's only defeat came in February 2010 at the East Asian Football Cup, where they lost 3-0.

Head coach Uli Stielike called up star footballers in the European league, including Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son Heung-min, Swansea City anchorman Ki Sung-yueng, Crystal Palace midfielder Lee Chung-yong, FC Augsburg players Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won to face the neighboring rivals.

FC Red Bull Salzburg prospect Hwang Hee-chan will likely make his senior debut against China. The 20-year-old, who was praised by Stielike for his performance at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, is the only natural striker listed on the 20-man squad.

Four of the seven defenders on Stielike's roster play in the Chinese Super League, including Hong Jeong-ho, who recently joined Jiangsu Suning from German side Augsburg. Defensive midfielder Jung Woo-young also plays with Chinese club Chongqing Lifan.

China, looking for their first World Cup berth since 2002, squeaked into the final round. With Qatar, China were paired with relatively easy opponents like Hong Kong, Maldives and Butan in the second round, but they only collected five wins, two draws and one loss.

Their disappointing performance saw the exit of Frenchman Alain Perrin in January and the return of Gao Hongbo. The 50-year-old Chinese was the head coach when his team beat South Korea in 2010.

The Chinese footballers will be fully motivated for the final round. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) recently laid out an incentive of 60 million yuan (US$8.96 million) if the team qualifies for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They can also collect a winning bonus of 3 million yuan per match in the final round.

China, which will arrive in Seoul later Monday, have been preparing thoroughly for their opener against South Korea. Gao's side already had a team training session in Shenyang last week, but South Korea conducted their first session on Monday.

Although the match will be played in Seoul, South Korea have shown their concern about Chinese fans outnumbering home supporters.

The Korea Football Association (KFA) said that 15,000 tickets were given to the Chinese side following the CFA's demand last month. However, if Chinese residents in South Korea and travel agencies buy tickets separately, the KFA speculated that there could be more than 30,000 Chinese fans at Seoul World Cup Stadium, the country's largest football-only stadium with a seating capacity of 66,000.

kdon@yna.co.kr
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