South Korea were back in rainy old London Town to have their now annual friendly against Croatia at Craven Cottage, the home of Fulham FC. After previous visits to London to play Greece, Serbia and Ivory Coast, Korea has now made London a decent stop in their international calendar. Although some cynics would see these visits as a money making exercise from the sponsors, you do have to admit that without that we would never have a chance to watch our favourite stars play, without of course the help of flier miles!
Back to the on-pitch action. This Korea which came to pay a visit is a very different side to previous years. With only a handful of internationally experienced players, the team is made up of a core and system which mirrors the successful Jeonbuk team from the K-League which manager Choi Kang-hee forged before taking on the job of national team coach. That said, the midfield stars such as Ki Sung-yueng, Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol add a much-needed experience to the team. The team also has had indifferent results as of late. A draw against Uzbekistan and loss to Iran have left them second in their qualification group for the 2014 World Cup. A friendly loss to Australia also set alarm bells ringing. So it was safe to say that expectations weren’t at the highest they’ve ever been seeing as Croatia in their day are a highly dangerous unit. Just ask England, whom Croatia knocked out of the Euro 2008 qualifiers.
The day itself was a rainy and cold affair. Fingers were going numb and with this being LKL’s first live play by play tweet, matters were harder than first expected, not to mention Craven Cottage’s dodgy WI-FI connection! The fans were in good voice at the start of play and optimism was fairly high by the time Hamburg striker Son Heung-min fired just wide of the Croatia goal. The crowd roared and was hungry for more. They got more when a good attack down the right wing courtesy of Lee Chung-yong ended in a cross which Ki Sung-yueng headed on goal but had it cleared off the line by the last defender. That however was Korea’s best chance of the match. That’s right, not the first half, the match. Early signs of defensive sloppiness were there when Ivica Olic fired just wide after capitalising on a defensive error. The defensive errors just didn’t stop from that point onwards. Korea’s physical strength has always been a weakness against stronger opposition but when Mario Mandzukic headed in a simple cross from a free kick, heads were in hands. Darijo Srna scored again just before half time as the defence backed away from him, and he slotted a shot from a distance past Jung Sung-ryong. At that point we were all hoping that the second half would bring more fortune. We were wrong. In no time Nikica Jelavic of Everton controlled the ball into the box from Luka Modric and slotted home Croatia’s third goal. In the remaining time Korea had the ball enough but did very little with it. The players looked ponderous on the ball and unimaginative. Apart from the usual midfield maestros there was very little else on offer. With only a few minutes to go until the end of the match Jelavic was on show again to slot a through ball into Mladen Petric who chipped Jung Sung-ryong and rounded off a true to form thrashing with a final score of 4-0. A truly embarrassing effort.
Where to begin with the assessment of this match? The overall main point is the defence is unbelievably poor. But then again haven’t we always known that? Since the retirement of Hong Myung-bo the Korean defence has looked a constant shambles and lacking in any kind of organisation. Captain Kwak Tae-hwi offers the only real international experience but even his form was poor on this day. There are some positives that we can take. Lee Chung-yong did well on the right wing and showed composure, and Koo Ja-Cheol of Wolfsburg in Germany offered some attacking creativity. The main bright spot in this team is Ki Sung-yueng. He showed creativity, composure, prowess and awareness, and picked off some really good long and short ball passing, no doubt a skill being honed at his new club Swansea who are known to play high tempo attacking passing football. But overall you can’t expect miracles from a handful of players. Korea need to go back to the drawing board and fast.
After the match I hung around in the mixed zone where players were being interviewed. I chatted to Ki Sung-yueng who was visibly upset after the match. I asked him what lessons the team could learn from that performance, after all friendlies are meant for teams to learn. He answered ‘Today we’re not satisfied with the result. 4-0 wasn’t the result we were expecting but he have to accept this one. Our organisation wasn’t perfect, we have to be more organized from the defence to the attack. Croatia were very organized’. Fair words as the composure of the Koreans did seem a far cry from the clinical precision of the Croatians. I turned my attention to the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and what his thoughts on that were. ‘I think we should be ready for the Qatar game in March which we have to prepare for deeply. But I’m not worried about the result. It’s going to be an advantage for us because we’re playing in Korea. We have to prepare well and can get the job done’. I asked him about his own personal performance and the fact that he had been the key player for Korea and how his new team at Swansea have benefited his style of play for the national team. ‘I tried to pass the ball well but international football is a different style to Swansea so you can’t really compare it. But I tried to play my best’. I found this somewhat problematic as so many players in the team haven’t had the exposure in Europe that he has. It was clear that there was a massive gulf in class between the European players and the players from the K-League. ‘If I play in Europe of course I’ll get some experience of course, more than the K-League players. The Premier League is the best league in the world so I can learn a lot of things from Swansea and hopefully that will rub off on the national team and help the team to be better’. In closing I wanted to end on a positive note and that it was good to see all the Korean players together again playing football, Ki felt the same; ‘Yes it’s good I always have a good relationship with the boys and always enjoy playing with them’. Indeed we enjoy watching them play together, but clearly there was a lot of work to be done on the pitch.
Clearly Ki didn’t want to delve into the problems that the team are facing on the pitch. I decided to mingle with some of the other Korean journalists present in the mixed zone and get some other opinions on the state of play. I spoke to Hwa-jong Lee who reports for Daily Sport Seoul to ask what his opinion was on the team’s display today. ‘It wasn’t a good result being 4-0 but clearly the main problem was in the defence. They made a lot of mistakes and it seemed every mistake lead to a goal’. I thought it might have been slightly harsh to put all the blame on the defence. After all Korea hasn’t scored any goals either, so I put the question to Mr Lee about this too. ‘Basically the whole match wasn’t good for the team but comparatively the midfield did better than the defence in their jobs. Strikers sometimes get goals but sometimes have off days, but when a defender has a bad day this is what happens. But the strikers, yes they had problems too. The head coach tried to experiment with Ji Dong-won and Son Hueng-min in the first half who did OK. But the second half with Lee Dong-gook and Park Chu-young up front were completely unbalanced and that needs to be sorted’. There were no doubts in mine or in Mr Lee’s minds’ that Ki was clearly the best player for Korea. ‘He always plays very well and he controlled the team from midfield. He contributes in both defence and attack so his presence balances the team’. I asked him in closing what needs to be done before the World Cup qualifiers; ‘The main problem is the two centre backs. Kwak played ok but he wasn’t partnered well, he needs a stable partner. They also need to balance the full backs. Today they tried different combinations but clearly it didn’t work’.
This was Korea’s worst performance as a team for quite some time. This is a new generation who are not as experienced as the previous generation. However this will come with time. There are defensive frailties but which Korea team hasn’t had to deal with this? Some have even overcome that. Fans can only hope that this team can overcome those problems but Korea need to be very careful that they don’t fall back into being a laughing stock on an international level, an image which they have worked so hard to shake off.
South Korea played Croatia at Craven Cottage on 6 February 2013