|Paulo Bento, head coach of the Korea's men's national football team, watches his players train at the Police Officers' Club Stadium in Dubai, Saturday, ahead of their first Asian Cup game against the Philippines on Monday. Yonhap|
By John Duerden
There are positives and negatives to the Asian Cup being held in January and not July with the weather in the United Arab Emirates being a major pro. South Korea is in Dubai to take on the Philippines on Monday with temperatures perfect for soccer. Warm and sunny without being too hot, the players are enjoying their time in the Middle East ahead of group games against the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan and China.
The hard work starts now but Korea has the honor of being the first-ever Asian Cup opponent for the Philippines. The team has never appeared at the tournament before and has prepared by appointing Sven-Goran Eriksson as head coach. The Swede was head coach of England at the 2002 World Cup when he brought the three lions to Jeju Island for a pre-tournament friendly that ended 1-1.
England casts something of a shadow over this game with both the biggest stars of both teams absent and busy in the English Premier League. Son Heung-min was in action on Friday evening as Tottenham Hotspur thrashed Tranmere Rovers 7-0 in the FA Cup. The attacker has been in excellent form in recent weeks and will miss the first two group games before heading to the United Arab Emirates.
At least Son will be there for the rest of the tournament. The Philippines will be without its biggest name player. Neil Etheridge is the goalkeeper for Cardiff City and is so important to the team as it fights for survival in England's top tier.
The Philippines, traditionally a minnow even in Southeast Asia, has improved in recent years partly due to a new policy of calling up ― mostly ― Europe-based players who have one parent from the archipelago. This gives instant international experience. More physical and powerful than the average ASEAN team, Korea should still prove too much for the team known as the Azkals.
Players such as Lee Jae-sung should be able to stamp their authority on the game. The playmaker has been in great form for Holstein Kiel in Germany's second tier this season, his first in Europe.
Lee wants a first Asian Cup win since 1960.
You may not get many opportunities to win a trophy with the national team, but I think we have the right opportunity to win this Asian Cup, so we have a big motivation," he said. "Fans also want it and us players also have big expectations."
It is almost unthinkable that Korea will not make the knockout stage. With the tournament expanding to 24 teams this time, only eight will be eliminated in the group stage. Even finishing third in the four-team group will likely be enough to progress to the second round.
Even so, a good start is always welcome. If Korea can find its rhythm early in the tournament, then so much the better.