|South Korean striker Cho Gue-sung celebrates after scoring the winning goal in the 55th minute of a 2020 Asian Under-23 Championship group stage match against Iran at the Tinsulanon Stadium in Songkhla, Thailand, Sunday. / Yonhap|
By John Duerden
The 2020 Asian Under-23 Championships are going perfectly so far for South Korea. With one game remaining in the group stage, the young Taeguk Warriors have already reached the last eight.
Sunday's 2-1 win over Iran in the southern Thailand city of Songkhla made it two victories out of two and means that Korea is assured of finishing in one of the top two spots in Group C and progressing to the quarter-final. Now coach Kim Hak-bum can rest his star players for Wednesday's final group game with Uzbekistan ―if he wants.
The quarter-final will take place against Vietnam, United Arab Emirates, Jordan or North Korea. South Korea would be favored to win such a tie and pass to the last four. The top three from the tournament will qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. Korea has appeared at every Olympics since 1984, and with military exemption on offer to anyone who collects a medal in Tokyo, it is a very big deal.
Following the very late 1-0 win over China in the opening game, the performance was improved against Iran with Kim making seven changes. Lee Dong-jun was the hero against China with a fine strike after 93 minutes and this time he opened the scoring after 22 minutes, pouncing on a rebound from a shot by the impressive Maeng Seung-woong to put Korea ahead. Cho Gue-sung then extended the Reds' lead with an unstoppable shot from outside the area ten minutes before the break.
Kim's men could not quite put the game to bed, and there were plenty of nerves after 54 minutes when Reza Shekari pulled a goal back ― perhaps a result of the Koreans taking their foot off the gas.
"After we took a 2-0 lead in the first half, I told them we have to keep the pressure on," coach Kim said. "But we gave up a goal that we shouldn't have, and it made the rest of the match difficult for us. It's an area we have to work on going forward."
From then, Iran pushed forward in search of the vital equalizer but could not quite find it despite, in truth, Korea's defending being not completely convincing. Korea had to do plenty in defense but took away the three points. It was a good test to ensure that when the quarterfinals start, the team is battle-hardened and playing at its peak.
If the attacking performance improved from the first game and was much more fluid and incisive, the backline will also have to tighten up but there is time for the coach to indulge in a little fine tuning.
The question for Kim is whether he names his strongest team for Uzbekistan, Wednesday. The game is not now so crucial and it can be argued that there is little extra benefit to finishing first rather than second and with the hot and humid conditions in Thailand, it may be a good idea to rest a few of the standouts for the knockout stage.
On the other hand, this is a tournament and momentum and confidence, not to mention cohesion, can play a big part. If Korea get the habit of winning then the team could go all the way.
"No matter who's on the pitch, these players will get the job done," Kim said. We will see.