By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 24 (Yonhap) -- Europe-based South Korean internationals have picked a great time to be hitting their stride, with their strong showing this week providing a welcome sight for the country heading into crucial World Cup qualifiers.
Two players who've switched clubs, Lee Kang-in of RCD Mallorca and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, both made their marks this week. Center back Kim Min-jae, who left China to join the Turkish side Fenerbahce in the summer, has settled in nicely too. A couple of mainstays, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Hwang Ui-jo of FC Girondins de Bordeaux, have shaken off recent injury concerns.
Four of these five players played for South Korea to open the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup earlier this month. Head coach Paulo Bento left Lee, a precociously talented midfielder at 20, off the roster for what he called strategic reasons.
And with South Korea set to face Syria and Iran on Oct. 7 and 12, respectively, for their next World Cup qualifiers, even the skeptical Bento had to be impressed with Lee's stunner against La Liga giants Real Madrid on Wednesday.
Lee charged into the teeth of the defense and fired one home with his left foot from the center of the box, cutting the deficit to 2-1. This was Lee's first goal in his first start for Mallorca. He had come off the bench in his two previous appearances.
Bento has no shortage of options in the attacking midfield position. He's scheduled to unveil his next roster Monday, and Lee will have one last chance to make an impression when Mallorca face Osasuna on Sunday night.
Hwang Ui-jo scored a wonder goal himself Wednesday, netting an equalizer against Montpellier with a thunderous strike from well outside the box.
Hwang had grabbed a brace in Bordeaux's previous match against AS Saint-Etienne on Sunday. It was a timely bounceback performance for the forward, who'd sustained a quadriceps injury during a league match on Sept. 12. It was attributed to fatigue -- after playing full-time against Iraq on Sept. 2, Hwang was only available for the second half in the next match against Lebanon on Sept. 7 -- and Hwang hadn't suffered any structural damage.
Bento and his staff probably held their breath, though, when Hwang was lifted late in Wednesday's match with some discomfort in his thigh. There was no immediate word on Hwang's health.
Son, the national team captain, had his own health scare this month. He was sidelined for the Lebanon match with a strained right calf, and missed two matches for Spurs upon rejoining the North London club.
Though he didn't find the back of the net in two contests since his return, that Son is playing at all is an encouraging sign.
Son and Hwang Hee-chan went toe-to-toe in the third round of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday, with the latter making his first start for Wolves and Son entering the match early in the second half.
Tottenham prevailed in the penalty shootout, but Hwang made his presence felt with some powerful forays into the attacking zone, while also converting his spot kick as the first penalty taker.
Over in Turkey, Kim Min-jae, the national team's go-to center back, has started five straight league matches for Fenerbahce and has played the full 90 minutes in each of the past three contests -- four counting UEFA Europa League action on Sept. 16. As defenders go, Kim is as dependable as any.
Lee Kang-in may still be on the bubble, but the other four are shoo-ins for the next iteration of the national team. And they will once again be asked to carry the load as South Korea seek to make their 10th straight trip to the World Cup.
South Korea only grabbed four points out of the two home matches this month. After hosting Syria in October, they will fly to Tehran for their first away match of the current qualification round.
South Korea have never beaten Iran in seven meetings in Tehran, with five losses and two draws.
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