Korea faces old enemy Iran in World Cup showdown
Seoul World Cup Stadium is going to be full, or close to full, for the first time in years Thursday as Korea takes on Iran in a crucial qualifier for the 2018 World Cup.
There are three possible scenarios when it comes to securing a place in Russia next summer.
The first sees the Taeguk Warriors defeat Iran and their closest challenger, just a point behind in Group A, Uzbekistan loses in China. That would see huge celebrations at the final whistle as it would mean mission accomplished and fans can start planning trips to Russia.
The second sees Korea win but Uzbekistan avoid defeat. Then it would mean that Shin Tae-yong‘s men would have to go to Uzbekistan next Tuesday in the final group game and get at least a tie.
The third sees Korea fail to beat Iran, the Central Asians victorious in Wuhan and then a trip to Tashkent where the 2002 World Cup semifinalist would have to win.
Whatever happens against Iran, South Korea will get two chances to go to a ninth successive World Cup. Yet nobody wants to go to the Uzbek capital needing to win especially when the host nation would be excited about the chance to appear on the global stage for the first time.
Confidence would not be high. After all, Korea has collected just 13 points from eight games so far, losing three of the last four qualifiers. The latest, a 3-2 defeat in Qatar in June, cost Uli Stielike his job. In came Shin, the former Olympic and Under-20 boss who also led Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma to the 2010 Asian Champions League title.
In that final, Seongnam defeated Iranian opposition but this will be tougher. Iran arrived in Korea already qualified for the World Cup. In eight Group A games, Team Melli is not only unbeaten but have yet to concede a single goal and sits seven points ahead of Korea.
Carlos Queiroz, the former head coach of Real Madrid and Portugal, was appointed in 2011 and has developed Iran into Asia’s number one national team. He has also won his last four meetings with Korea 1-0 and there is talk of a jinx developing.
The home fans will be hoping that Iran will take its foot off the gas a little as there is nothing for Iran to play for. Yet the visitor is starting preparation for the World Cup and will see a game against a desperate Korea in front of 60,000 fans as the perfect way to start.
Korea needs to find a way through the defense of the team ranked 24 in the world by FIFA (the host is 49). Much will depend on star attacker Son Heung-min. The Tottenham Hotspur star scored 21 goals in England last season and if anyone in Asia has the ability to penetrate the Iranian backline it is Son.
The 25 year-old has declared him- self fit and ready to play the full 90 minutes after recovering from an arm fracture during the loss to Qatar. He played 70 minutes for Spurs on Sunday and it could be that jetlag and travel fatigue are greater issues.
Captain Ki Sung-yueng was also injured in the same Qatar game. The Swansea City midfielder has been spending time at home recovering from a knee operation. It remains to be seen if he plays.
Korea is going to need all the experience and firepower it can muster while hoping to stop the opposition from scoring.
A full Seoul World Cup Stadium is going to have a night to remember, for better or worse.
Iranian football team coach Carlos Queiroz, left, and South Korean football team coach Shin Tae-yong speak during a press conference at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday.