A View from Belgium’s Opposition: South Korea

South Korea will be Belgium’s third opponents in the group stage of the World Cup with de Rode Duivels already through and Taegeuk Warriors all but assured of the next flight home.

For many South Korea are a tip to finish runners up in Group H, or possibly even win it, but scratching beneath the surface reveals a team in total disarray. Personally, here at BeNeFoot we feel the Asian team – who did so well when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002 – could be propping up the group when the curtain is drawn on the group stages.

We spoke to John Duerden, an Asian football expert and genuinely all-round great guy to give us the lowdown on South Korea. John regularly appears on BBC’s World Football Phone In as the Asian continent guru.

South Korea manager Hong Myung-Bo was a key figure in their incredible 2002 World Cup campaign (Photo: Wikipedia)

South Korea manager Hong Myung-Bo was a key figure in their incredible 2002 World Cup campaign (Photo: Wikipedia)

How do you rate South Korea’s chances at this World Cup and how does that differ from the general consensus of the population and their expectations, and what will the club be expecting to get?

John Duerden: “Group H is pretty open so surely last 16 will be a realistic target for South Korea especially since they will not have to face a South American team in a difficult climate.

Korea were relieved to avoid a South American team because they tend to struggle against such opposition. Expectations were quite high at the time of the draw but have certainly sank quite low after some very poor results since. Apart from a good win in Greece in March and a victory over a terrible Costa Rica in January, results in 2014 have been bad with performances no better. If Korea play well, they have the ability to get to the second round, no question, with real pace going forward but Korea playing well, except for Greece, has not happened for quite some time. The team is in poor form are low on confidence. At the moment, avoiding defeat against Russia would be seen as a very good result.

Many people know of Ki Sung-yueng from Swansea who spent this season on loan at Sunderland, and Kim Young-gwon has won the Asian Champions League with Guangzhou Evergrande of China, but are they as important to South Korea as we would expect or will the main threat be coming from somewhere else? What tactics can we expect from the squad when the competition begins?

John Duerden: “Korea’s best two attacking players are Son Heung-min, usually on the left and Lee Chung-yong on the right. Lee has been with Bolton for a few years though a broken leg set his career back. He’s far too good for the Championship and one of the best dribblers in Asia though his finishing lets him down. Son is explosive, especially running from deep, on his day as he has shown in the Bundesliga but that day has not come around very often for the national team. If these two can get the ball though, Korea always have a chance.

Korea have played 4-2-3-1 for most of the time under the present coach and look to counter attack at pace and get behind the defence. However, so open was the team in midfield in a 4-0 loss to Ghana that it is possible that this may change. There is a feeling that something has to as Korea can’t play this way when it all starts though there is still that hope that it will be alright on the night.”

Bolton winger Lee Chung-Yong is one of the Koreans' most experienced and dangerous weapons. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Bolton winger Lee Chung-Yong is one of the Koreans’ most experienced and dangerous weapons. (Photo: Wikipedia)

How do you expect South Korea to exploit Belgium knowing that their main weakness is their unnatural full backs, who are usually centre backs, and perhaps a lack of cover for them from the wide players further forward? Not to mention their short supply of out and out attackers – especially if Lukaku is injured.

John Duerden: “In theory, Korea can give les Diables Rouges a tough time. Korea’s strength in attack lies in the widemen mentioned above and there is decent back-up in this area also in Kim Bo-kyoung and Lee Keun-ho. The likes of Lee and Son can play either side as well as come inside, and the full backs are quick and like to get forward.

Korea’s approach play is usually very good, though it does tend to fall apart a little when it comes to the last third of the pitch.”

How does South Korea, as a nation, rate Belgium? There’s been a lot of interest in the nation in Europe due to the sheer amount of players playing in the top leagues. That said Belgium have their weaknesses that will hold them back from ultimate success but Group H are surely seeing them as the team to beat or do they think they’re a lucky addition to the group over Germany or Spain?

John Duerden: “There’s no doubt that Belgium should be seen as the likely group winners though it remains to be seen what such expectations will do especially if the Algeria game does go the right way (for Belgium). The North Africans are looking like they could pose a tricky test and at this moment, should be seen as the main challengers to the two European teams.

That said, Belgium as a football nation is little known in Korea, apart from Seol Ki-hyeon’s time with Anderlecht. It is not seen as a major European nation and nothing is known of the league. There is a real Korean connection with the Netherlands but very little with Belgium.

Of course though, the Belgian stars are very well-known as there is a strong interest in the big European leagues and the UEFA Champions League and after recent games, there is a sense of foreboding about what the damage Lukaku could do. The recent decision of Januzaj was very well-reported. As is probably true in much of Asia, the next few weeks will have a big part to play in how Belgium is seen.”

We thank John for his fantastic responses. You can find most of John’s work at the BBC, the Guardian, ESPN and World Soccer as well as various other independent sources. He can be followed on Twitter @JohnnyDuerden.

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