|National football players Son Heung-min, right, and Kim Shin-wook in action during a training session in Istanbul Saturday, in preparation for their Qatar World Cup qualifying match against Turkmenistan, Tuesday. /Yonhap|
By John Duerden
South Korea last met Turkmenistan during the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup and made short shrift of the Central Asians at home in Seoul, although struggling a little to get the 3-1 victory away in Ashgabat.
The team is back in the same city on Tuesday and it could be a similarly tricky tie.
The Taegeuk Warriors are about to start their campaign to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and what would be an impressive tenth successive appearance on the biggest sporting stage there is ― only Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany have a longer unbroken streak.
Group H is not a foregone conclusion, especially as Korea has to finish first to be sure of progressing to the next stage where there are World Cup places available. Sri Lanka is ranked 201 in the world and should provide six points.
But then the games with North Korea will be hard fought and unpredictable and nobody at the Korea Football Association will have forgotten that loss to Lebanon in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup. Cho Kwang-rae certainly has not; the defeat cost him his job as head coach.
Coach Paulo Bento admitted last week that he knew little about the team, but he needs to know that Turkmenistan is not going to be an easy three points in Group H at home or away.
Bento admitted last week that he did not know too much about the team.
"We have analyzed some of their earlier matches, but it's difficult to predict how they'll come out against us because we haven't seen them play under the new coach," Bento said. "But we'll stick to our own philosophy and strategies and play the way we always have played."
With a team full of stars such as Son Heung-min, Kwon Chang-hoon and Hwang Ui-jo, the Taegeuk Warriors, ranked 37 in the world ― 95 places above the host ― is expected to win. Yet it will not be easy and Korea has to be better than it was in last week's 2-2 tie with Georgia in a warm-up.
Turkmenistan showed at the Asian Cup in January that it is not to be underestimated. The team pushed Japan all the way in a 3-2 defeat, although ending bottom of the group.
More than half of the squad belong to just two clubs, which makes for a cohesive and organized team. As Bento mentioned, there is a new coach at the helm, the first foreign coach since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ante Mise is from Croatia.
The team comfortably won 2-0 in Sri Lanka, with Orazasahedov Vahyt scoring the opening goal. Turkmenistan skipper Amnov Arslan added a second after the break with a fine free-kick.
Korea will provide a much tougher test than Sri Lanka and will be expected to win. A decade ago, underappreciated midfielder Kim Do-heon saved the day. In 2019, it is time for someone else to step up. It does not matter who it is, but South Korea needs all three points as it takes the first steps on the road to Qatar 2022.