By Yoo Jee-ho
DOHA, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- Putting his creativity and dazzling skills on full display at the FIFA World Cup, midfielder Lee Kang-in has been South Korea's most dangerous weapon off the bench so far in Qatar.
But could he be even more effective if he were to start and play an entire match? Or would South Korea be better off playing Lee as the sparkplug in the second half?
The South Korean coaching staff will try to figure out their answers ahead of Friday's Group H finale against Portugal.
It's a must-win match for South Korea, who will also need help from the other Group H match Friday between Uruguay and Ghana to advance to the knockout stage. Head coach Paulo Bento said at a press conference Tuesday that he would wait until the very last moment to settle on his lineup for Friday, while ensuring that he would seek to maximize the team's strengths and minimize weaknesses.
Lee's rise to World Cup stardom has been nothing short of remarkable, considering where he was just two months ago.
For two friendly matches in September, Lee was called up by Bento for the first time in 18 months. But Bento didn't even play him, leading to speculation that the two had a feud and Bento had benched Lee out of spite.
Lee is one of South Korea's most popular football players, a love affair that began when Lee was a star in a reality television show for young aspiring players and peaked when he won the Golden Ball as the MVP of the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup as an 18-year-old for the runner-up South Korea. Bento's benching didn't sit well with South Korean supporters.
The narrative has completely changed in November. In addition to putting Lee on his 26-man World Cup squad, Bento has leaned on him to be the offensive energizer against tired defenders in the second halves of two matches.
Against Ghana, Lee ignited a second-half rally by setting up Cho Gue-sung's first goal just one minute after entering the match. South Korea ended up losing 3-2, but it wasn't for lack of effort from Lee, who nearly netted a late equalizer with a free kick.
Cho has grabbed most of the spotlight, with his movie-star looks backed up by a two-goal performance against Ghana, which in turn has made his mostly-idle Instagram account the fastest-growing one on the team. But Lee has been a hit with football connoisseurs, with his uncanny ability to find passing lanes when there doesn't seem to be any, and to deliver crosses with pinpoint accuracy. He is noticeable when he has the ball at his feet and sends defenders into a scrambling mode. Even in the crucible of a close match against Ghana, Lee kept his cheeky streak intact, waving his arms to fire up South Korean supporters as he was preparing to take a corner.
Bento said the decision to play Lee in World Cup matches wasn't reached on a whim, explaining that he and his staff have been tracking his progress for a long time and analyzing his performances both with the national team and with his Spanish club, RCD Mallorca.
Bento, who usually avoids publicly discussing merits of individual players, had a particularly revealing moment in Tuesday's presser.
"There's no doubting his abilities. He has been continuously improving and he has integrated well into our style of play," Bento said. "We've been keeping an eye on his development for a long time. I am pleased that he has been able to showcase his talent in the two matches here."
That's about as much praise as Bento will offer for any player. Whether the next step in their evolving coach-player relationship leads to Lee's first career World Cup start remains to be seen.
Bento, however, will not be on the bench Friday, whether Lee starts or once again plays a super-sub role.
Bento has been suspended for the match after getting a red card in the aftermath of the Ghana loss. He got into a heated argument with referee Anthony Taylor, who blew the final whistle moment safer South Korea had won a corner.
Bento apologized to his players on Tuesday for that emotional outburst. Lee said Monday that while it wasn't ideal to play such an important match without the bench boss, he and his teammates would forge ahead, business as usual.
"Obviously, this is not a good situation for us," Lee said. "But no matter where he is, we all know he's going to be with us every step of the way."
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