By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) – Stability off the field and consistency on it have both been elusive for South Korea and while coach Shin Tae-yong says they will show their “true power” during the World Cup, another early exit would come as no surprise.
South Korea seem to have lost their way in the three years since they reached the Asian Cup final in Australia, where the disappointment of an extra-time defeat to the hosts was softened by optimism over the side’s potential.
German Uli Stielike, who guided them to that 2015 Sydney final, was sacked last June after defeats in Iran, China and Qatar left South Korea’s hopes of reaching the World Cup finals hanging by a thread.
Shin took over for the final two qualifiers and while he cajoled the side over the line with a pair of nervy 0-0 draws, the Koreans grabbed an automatic spot only as other results went their way, raising fears they would be embarrassed at the World Cup.
Listless defeats to Russia and Morocco in October friendlies heightened the sense of panic in Korea to such an extent that 2002 coach Guus Hiddink was even being touted as a possible saviour.
But just as the demands that the popular Dutchman take the reins for Russia were building into a groundswell, everything changed in the blink of an eye.
South Korea were a team transformed.
In November, Korea played Colombia off the park in a 2-1 win in Suwon and Serbia were fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw in Ulsan days later.
South Korea then went through a regional tournament involving North Korea, China and Japan unbeaten at the end of last year before beating Moldova and Latvia, and drawing with Jamaica, in friendlies early in 2018.
Like all good things, however, Korea’s good run had to come to an end, and after back-to-back defeats in Northern Ireland and Poland in March, questions are again being raised about their form heading into the World Cup.
If South Korea are to have any chance of escaping a group that also contains world champions Germany, Sweden and Mexico, they must find a way to get the best out of Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min.
The 25-year-old has the pace and ability to unlock any defence but too often lacks support on international duty and one of Shin’s main tasks as coach will be to find someone to share the goalscoring burden in Russia.
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)