By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, June 15 (Yonhap) -- Considering the mixed bag of performances by South Korea after four friendly matches this month in preparation for the FIFA World Cup, it was hardly a surprise to hear players, from seasoned veterans down to international neophytes, talk about the need to improve -- collectively and individually -- before, between and after those games.
Their head coach, Paulo Bento, was no exception, as he kept stressing the importance of getting better in all aspects. Of course, few teams, if any, can be in peak form five months from the World Cup, not even title favorites.
There were moments when Bento, fiercely protective of his players, appeared blind to his players' miscues. But the Portugal-born tactician also seemed to understand South Korea will be in for a short World Cup unless they can tighten things up in their own zone.
South Korea opened the busy month with a 5-1 loss to Brazil on June 2. They then defeated Chile 2-0 on June 6. Four days later, they rallied for a 2-2 draw against Paraguay. Capping off the run was a resounding 4-1 victory over Egypt on Tuesday.
This was far from the best version of the South Korean team, not by a long shot, because of injuries. They were without their best center back in Kim Min-jae (ankle), and also one of their top playmaking midfielders, Lee Jae-sung (knee), in all four matches. Their winger Hwang Hee-chan (mandatory military training) and holding midfielder Jung Woo-young (lower body injuries) missed the final two matches. Midfielder Hwang In-beom, usually the glue that holds the forward group and the backline together, sat out the final game with general soreness.
But will the return of these players solve all the problems? Do these absences explain South Korea's defensive woes against teams that shouldn't have given them that much trouble?
South Korea will likely find out answers to these questions during the World Cup, once those injured players are back to full health.
At the World Cup, world No. 29 South Korea will face Portugal (eighth), Uruguay (13th) and Ghana (60th) in the group stage. There can be no doubt that Brazil are better than any of those three. The versions of the Chile and Egypt teams that traveled to South Korea, both missing their biggest stars, are also inferior to the aforementioned trio. Whether Paraguay, ranked 50th, can be as competitive as Ghana is up for debate.
There is hardly any shame in losing to Brazil, but South Korea could have kept the score more respectable with some discipline and composure. South Korea had trouble against high pressing of Chile, and their offense generated just one free kick goal after Chile went down a man early in the second half.
Paraguay's speedy counterattacks badly exposed South Korea's porous transition defense. Mental lapses and poor positioning directly led to both Paraguay goals before South Korea rallied with two second-half scores.
South Korea conceded that one goal against Egypt because their defenders stopped playing while helplessly looking for a handball violation. The whistle never came, and Egypt forward Mostafa Mohamed had the presence of mind to score amid a sea of red-clad South Koreans.
Defensive struggles against inferior and undermanned opponents are certainly a cause for concern. Bento, however, claimed ignorance when it comes to adventurous moments for his defenders.
Asked to comment on the status of the team's defense following Tuesday's win, Bento balked at the word "shaky" after the question during the online press conference was translated from Korean to English.
"I didn't see (shaky) moments. During this training camp and games we played, I didn't see that kind of things," Bento said, shaking his head.
The coach then said mistakes are always part of football and the key is to maintain a positive mindset.
"We're going to make mistakes in the future, and we should try to improve (on) that," Bento said. "At the same time, we should keep with the good things. There were many, many things we did well."
One thing that Bento particularly liked from his charges was their response to adversity. He said "team spirit" was the single biggest takeaway from these four matches.
"The most important (thing) for me was the way we reacted in the second game (against Chile) after we lost the first one (to Brazil), and the way we reacted after we were losing 2-0 (to Paraguay) in the second half and kept playing in our style," Bento said. "This is the best thing of this training camp."
After the Chile game and before the Paraguay game, Bento went a great distance to defend his backline, saying his forwards were also responsible for giving up opportunities and that "there is no perfect game" in football.
"If people are thinking that we will have many, many games without conceding any opportunity, they are not thinking in the right way," Bento said last Thursday. "Teams are going to (force) us to make mistakes. They're going to create some problems for our team. We need to have the personality to insist on our way of playing, and try to create as many opportunities as we can, and be able not to concede too many opportunities to the opponent."
A veteran center back, Kim Young-gwon, shared Bento's view on the inherent nature of the game, saying the key is to minimize those errors instead of trying not to make any.
"Football is a game made up of mistakes, and we've always been working on minimizing tactical mistakes as a unit, rather than focusing on individual errors," Kim said prior to the Egypt game.
On not having his usual sidekick, Kim Min-jae, Kim Young-gwon said, "Min-jae is obviously an important player, but we need to be prepared to compete without him. We've been trying to make sure we don't feel his absence too much."
But things didn't quite turn out that way, because among the myriad absences for South Korea, not having Kim Min-jae hurt the team the most.
Bento once referred to the talented center back for Fenerbahce as South Korea's fastest defender. Against the type of high pressing and tight forechecking that Brazil and Chile put on South Korea, Kim can be the safety valve to relieve pressure, thanks to his combination of speed, composure and passing skills.
Kim is also a physical defender who could have held his ground against some skilled forwards, the likes of whom he hadn't seen from Asian opponents during South Korea's World Cup qualification run.
"I can't hide that Min-jae is a fantastic player, a player who has a lot of influence in our way of playing in both phases of the game," Bento said. "The way we attack, and essentially, the way we defend, he's the fastest player we have in our defensive line. Of course, he's an influential player for us. But this doesn't mean that the other ones are (playing) in a bad way. We trust in the other players as well."
Bento said it was "a good experience" for some new faces to get into international matches for the first time. But Bento cycled through more new faces in his midfield than on defense. The emergence of Jeong Woo-yeong, the energetic midfielder for SC Freiburg, as a viable attacking option was particularly encouraging. The youngest member of this edition of the national team at 22, Jeong appeared in all four matches, after starting this month with just three caps for his career.
Jeong assisted on Hwang Hee-chan's goal against Chile and netted the last-gasp equalizer against Paraguay.
"Jeong is a player with very good technical skills," Bento said. "He's good in the technical aspect as well as in the tactical one. He's a player that understands the game. He's aggressive in the defensive process, playing as a second striker, but playing also as a winger, (he uses) a bit more interior space than the normal winger."
Among other less-used players, forward Cho Gue-sung and midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon each scored a goal against Egypt. Cho was brought in for Hwang Ui-jo as a striker, while Kwon got the start and played the entire match.
Cho, who's trying to push Hwang for the starting job, said the June friendly matches were a wakeup call for him.
"Personally, I realized just how much more work I have to do after these matches," said Cho, who didn't face Brazil and came off the bench in the next three games. "I thought I must improve or I will have a hard time (playing on the national team). (Bento) wants me to play in a different style than Ui-jo. I didn't play a lot of minutes in my three matches but I still had to do my job. We will go up against stronger teams in the future and I have to keep that in mind as I work on becoming a better player."
Kwon, who has fallen down the depth chart of attacking midfielders, said he wants to regain his confidence.
"In team meetings, the coach talks about how we should try to create as many dangerous chances as possible in tight spaces," Kwon said. "I am usually confident in that area, but I didn't play as well as I would have liked today."
As for improving for the future, Kwon said, "It should always be about the team, not the individuals. We'll have to stick to our guns and be better as a team."
Even Hwang Ui-jo, who scored two goals in his three appearances this month to end a 12-month international scoring drought, was hard on himself Tuesday.
"I am giving myself 50 points (out of 100). There were games when we scored but didn't particularly play well, and games when we had to play catchup," Hwang said. "I think we all learned a great deal from these four games and we will try to be better the next time we're together."
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