Cursed Korea face mountain to climb in Russia

Highlights – Shanghai SIPG vs Sydney FC

John Duerden

John Duerden examines an injury crisis that threatens to disrupt Korea’s already difficult looking World Cup campaign.

If it wasn’t bad enough that South Korea are facing Germany, Mexico and Sweden at the 2018 World Cup, Taeguk Warriors are dropping like flies. The FIFA rankings of the three opponents combined is still considerably less than Korea’s 61. The odds were already long on Korea getting to the second round for the third time in the last five appearances. Now, only the most optimistic gamblers will be having a flutter.

May has been a stressful month for coach Shin Tae-yong and he has already lost four players who would have gone to Russia . There may be one more to drop out too. The most serious blow came with the news out that Kwon Chang-hoon will miss the World Cup. There were lots of people, inside Korea and increasingly out, that were looking forward to seeing the 23 year-old on the biggest stage of all.

For South Korean head coach Shin Tae-Yong a string of recent injuries have made a tough job even tougher.

Kwon was 14 minutes away from finishing what has been an excellent season for Dijon in France when he suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. The right-sided midfielder with a left foot that can make kimchi, has scored 11 goals in Ligue 1, highly impressive given that Dijon finished squarely in mid-table. It was not surprising then that there were rumours of interest in the player from clubs in bigger leagues than France.

The most exciting aspect was that Kwon finished the season in excellent form and was looking red-hot. While Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur gets the headlines, there was a growing feeling that Korea needed Kwon to shine just as much ans their North London star. The question now is how long the player will be out for. It could be some time.

Assuming that Korea stays with the expected 4-4-2 formation, and that is an assumption with coach Shin announcing that he may have to change, then Crystal Palace winger Lee Chung-yong may be the one to come in on the right side of midfield. Lee played at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, scoring twice at the former, but has barely played in England this year. There is also Moon Seon-min, the Incheon United wideman who has yet to make an national team debut. Neither excites to the extent of Kwon.

The day after it was confirmed that Kwon was not going to Russia, the Korea FA announced that Lee Keun-ho was also out. The 2012 Asian Player of the Year had picked up a knee injury on Saturday in Gangwon’s game against Gyeongnam. It was expected at first that he would be OK to head to Russia. Not so. The 33 year-old forward will be out for six weeks. It is another blow.

Lee was seen as the right strike partner for Son at the top of the attack. Unselfish and intelligent, Lee is not one to score the goals to take the team all the way into the knockout stage but could have been the perfect foil to get the best out of Son.

An even bigger setback is the injury to Kim Min-jae. The young and powerful Jeonbuk Motors centre-back had emerged to look like he could be the answer to the long-standing vulnerabilities in the middle of defence. That may have been putting unfair pressure on the 21 year-old’s broad shoulders but Kim looked like he would relish the physical battle presented by Sweden and at least reduce the sense of chaos that set pieces habitually bring to the Korean backline.

But he won’t be there either. At least Kim is young enough to be around for a number of World Cups to come, he really could have made a name for himself in Russia. Veteran midfielder Yeom Ki-hun is not going to get another chance. The set-piece king would have been unlikely to start but his experience and skills would have added to the depth in the squad but a fractured rib ended any chance of that.

So the month of May has robbed Korea of three likely starters and one squad player. There is also the possibility that full-back Kim Jin-su will not make it either.

While it offers opportunities to other players, it makes a tough job that much tougher. If there is one benefit, it is an uncertain one –the lowering of expectations, which were not high anyway given the struggles in qualification and the toughness of the group, are even lower.

The absence of pressure may help coach Shin and his players in Russia to perform better than they did at the 2014 World Cup when the team collected a solitary point. After the most miserable of Mays, the task in June is looking very difficult indeed.

Korea getting out of this group will rank alongside their 2002 achievement of reaching the semi-finals. It is looking like a very long shot indeed.