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World Cup preview: South Korea

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole assesses the chances of South Korea as they compete in their ninth successive tournament.

By no means a World Cup powerhouse, South Korea have nonetheless become a regular fixture of the tournament over the past 30 years and more.

Russia 2018 will be their ninth successive World Cup campaign, having reached just one of the previous nine before Mexico 1986.

The South Korea team line up before their friendly game with Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 1, 2018© Reuters

The most successful Asian nation in World Cup history, Korea will once again be looking to upset the odds in Russia as the class of 2018 bid to emulate the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Ahn Jung-Hwan and Lee Young-Pyo.

Here, Sports Mole previews Korea's chances this summer.


GROUP

Korea are likely to be up against it in Group F, having been drawn alongside Germany, Mexico and Sweden - all of whom are some way above them in the FIFA rankings.

World Cup Group F

Germany have topped every World Cup group they have been in since 1986 and will be overwhelming favourites to do so again, while Mexico lost just once throughout qualifying and Sweden beat the likes of Netherlands and Italy to a place at this summer's tournament.

It would be a substantial surprise if Korea managed to progress into the knockout rounds, then, but they do have their two kindest games on paper up first before closing their campaign against the current World Cup holders.

SOUTH KOREA FIXTURES

June 18: Sweden vs. South Korea (1pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)
June 23: South Korea vs. Mexico (4pm, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don)
June 27: South Korea vs. Germany (3pm, Kazan Arena, Kazan)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Korea's qualification for Russia 2018 was anything but plain sailing, to the point where the Korean Football Association sacked their manager with just two games of the campaign to go.

A defeat to Qatar proved to be the final straw for German coach Uli Stielike, and while new boss Shin Tae-Yong saw them over the line in qualifying, their back-to-back goalless draws against Iran and Uzbekistan would not have done too much to restore faith that they can go far in this summer's tournament.

South Korea's players celebrate following an international friendly in March 2018© Reuters

It all started very well for Korea as they waltzed through the opposition in the first phase, winning all eight of their matches without conceding a single goal, scoring 27 of their own in the process.

Victory over China in their opening game of the second phase continued their winning streak, but they would only emerge victorious in three of their subsequent nine matches, dropping points against every other team in the group.

In the end, Korea only beat minnows Syria and Uzbekistan to the final automatic qualification spot by two points, and it is fair to say that had they been in the other group of Asian qualifying - which contained the likes of Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia - then they may not have reached Russia at all.


RECENT FORM

A 2-0 loss to Senegal on Monday in a behind-closed-doors friendly leaves Korea with just one win in their last six matches; that 2-0 victory coming against Honduras last month.

One goal in their last three matches has provided plenty of cause for concern, meanwhile, particularly when creative talent Son Heung-min - their only genuine star - has been heavily involved.

South Korea's players celebrate following their international friendly with Bolivia in June 2018© Reuters

Senegal join a list of sides to have beaten Korea this year that also includes Northern Ireland, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with 10 goals being conceded against those four teams.

Poor form and a tough draw is not an ideal combination, and Shin Tae-Yong will surely be worried about his side's inability to pick up wins away from home - as highlighted in this latest batch of friendlies.


SQUAD

South Korea World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC).

Defenders: Kim young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), Yun Yong-sun (Seongnam FC), Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), Go Yo-han (FC Seoul), Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors).

Midfielders: Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa FC), Koo Ja-cheol (FC Augsburg), Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), Moon Seon-min (Incheon United).

Forwards: Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), Hwang Hee-chan (FC Red Bull Salzburg).


STAR PLAYER - Son Heung-min

Son Heung-min in action for South Korea on May 28, 2018© Reuters

So important is Son Heung-min to Korea's World Cup hopes, manager Shin Tae-Yong has adapted his side's formation to get the best out of the attacking midfielder.

Son heads into the tournament on the back of his most impressive campaign to date for Spurs; a campaign that saw him also help out as a striker during Harry Kane's short absence from the side.

The 25-year-old is at his best when counter-attacking, often being the man to finish off the move, and the aim for Korea is to ensure that their technically sound players are on the same wavelength.

Having become one of the finest creative talents in the Premier League, there is a weight of expectation on Son to replicate his club form for the national side, which has not always been the case.


MANAGER - Shin Tae-Yong

South Korea manager Shin Tae-yong on May 28, 2018© Reuters

Shin Tae-Yong has been in the South Korean setup in various roles over the past three years, so it was no surprise when he was chosen as Stielike's successor in July of last year.

A former caretaker, assistant, Under-23 and Under-20 boss for the national team, Shin initially earned his managerial stripes with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.

In just two years with the club, Shin won the FA Cup, Lunar New Year Cup and AFC Champions League, the latter of which was only their second ever continental title.

The 49-year-old also won 23 caps for his country during his playing days, scoring three goals throughout a five-year international career.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Fourth place (2002)

South Korea's players celebrate after beating Spain on penalties at the 2002 World Cup© Reuters

South Korea had the honour - along with Japan - of being the joint-hosts for the first ever Asian World Cup in 2002, and they rode that wave of euphoria all the way to the semi-finals.

A stunning extra-time victory over Italy in the last 16 was followed by a penalty shootout win over Spain as Korea took some of the world's biggest scalps against the odds, only for their dream run to finally be stopped by Germany in the semi-finals.

That is one of only two occasions where Korea have made it past the group stages in a World Cup, the other coming in 2010 when they were knocked out by Uruguay in the last 16.

Four years ago they finished bottom of a group which included Belgium, Algeria and Russia, and they were also eliminated at the first hurdle in 1954, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2006.

Overall Korea have played 31 World Cup matches, winning five, drawing nine and losing 17 with 31 goals scored and 67 conceded.


PREDICTION

South Korea have a big ask ahead of them if they are to qualify from Group F, and we expect the 2002 semi-finalists to finish bottom of the pile behind Germany, Mexico and Sweden.

VERDICT: Fourth in Group F

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How far will South Korea go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
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Last 16
33.3%
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Semi-finals
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Winners
11.1%
Crystal Palace's Lee Chung-yong warms up on January 30, 2018
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