Football eyes have been fixed on the K-league in recent weeks but Wednesday’s 2010 World Cup qualifier in Saudi Arabia has been casting a large shadow over the domestic scene for weeks. Wednesday’s game in Riyadh is the first big test in South Korea’s bid to qualify for South Africa.
Until now, the obstacles on that road have been provided by the likes of Turkmenistan, Jordan, North Korea and UAE. Coaches are fond of saying Qq Poker these days that there are no easy games any more in international football. If that is the case, it is still true to say that some opponents are easier than others.
Saudi Arabia is a traditional powerhouse of the continental scene, has appeared at the last four World Cups and fully expects to be busy in the summer of 2010. When you add the fact that South Korea has tied two and lost three of the last five meetings with the West Asians then you get an idea of the task at hand at the imposing King Fahd International Stadium.
Two of those defeats came during qualification for the 2006 World Cup. The first was a 2-0 reverse in the eastern city of Damman, a result that became known as the ‘Damman Shock’ in the Seoul media. The return game in Seoul also went the way of the Saudis and ostensibly cost then coach Jo Bonfrere his job though he told me just before he departed that the first loss was the beginning of the end.
A similar result in Riyadh may not have that effect on Huh Jung-moo but then again, it might as Group Two of qualification couldn’t be tighter. Both teams have collected four points from two games in the final round of qualification. South Korea drew 1-1 with North Korea in September and then thrashed UAE 4-1 in Seoul. Saudi Arabia started with a draw at home to Iran and then won in UAE. Of the five teams in the group, only the top two automatically qualify for the World Cup. Third place enters a play-off system.
Wednesday’s game is a real ‘six-pointer’. It is not only about collecting three points; it is preventing your rivals from doing the same.
Coach Huh Jung-moo is likely to keep faith with the young players who impressed last month in Seoul. This includes teenage FC Seoul midfielder Ki Sung-young, who has, along with his team-mates, been eating lots of lamb in preparation.
“All the players are confident because of last month’s good win against UAE,” Ki told reporters.” We feel good physically and mentally. It will not be an easy game but if we prepare well we can get a good result.”
There has been some good news. Saudi star Yasser Al Qahtani has a groin injury and could miss the match. ‘The Sniper’ and 2007 Asian Player of the Year scored against Korea in March 2005 and the 2007 Asian Cup. Quick, strong and skilful, his absence will be welcome. The Saudis still have attacking capabilities that few Asian sides can boast and Malez Maaz may be small but he can be devastating on the ball.
The Saudis have suspended their league season for the last two weeks to give their stars a chance to prepare for this match. Korea arrived in Qatar last Wednesday in order to acclimatize and play a warm-up match against the national team there. That ended 1-1 and, as these games tend to do, revealed little. “I am not interested in this result,” said coach Huh in Doha. “We could have won and we could have lost but the main thing was to take a look at the players.”
Korean fans will also get a rare look at Saudi Arabia’s players as they – satisfied by large salaries – rarely venture outside their homeland but Korea’s overseas contingent, including Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung, Park Chu-young of AS Monaco and Borussia Dortmund’s Lee Young-pyo were in action last weekend and only arrived in the middle-east on Sunday.
Their experience will be needed – Lee will make his 100th appearance for the national team. The milestone is an impressive one and if Korea are to make it seven successive World Cups, games such as this are key.
“It is a tough game but we have come here to win,” Park told reporters as he arrived at Doha Airport. “We don’t play against Saudi Arabia often and we don’t have a good record against them. We will do our best to change that on Wednesday.”