By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea are making a habit of replacing their coach in the run-up to Asian Cup tournaments but if Paulo Bento can emulate Uli Stielike’s performance four years ago then the reward will have been well worth the risk for the two-times champions.
Stielike was appointed manager in September 2014, just four months prior to the region’s top international tournament, but still managed to guide Korea to the final in Australia where they lost 2-1 in extra time to the hosts.
Fast forward to 2018 and South Korea have another new face at the helm with Bento taking over in August after the Korea Football Association decided to move on from Shin Tae-yong, who oversaw a first-round exit at the World Cup in Russia.
Like Stielike, Bento has had little time to get to grips with the job before the Asian Cup but with the Koreans unbeaten in his six matches in charge, optimism is building ahead of their opener against the Philippines in Dubai on Jan. 7.
Bento, who actually faced South Korea on the pitch at the 2002 World Cup when Portugal lost 1-0 to the co-hosts, has been quick to tamp down expectations for the upcoming tournament in the United Arab Emirates.
“I can understand that we can have positive expectations for the Asian Cup because we performed well in the last six matches,” Yonhap News quoted him as saying earlier this month.
“I’m confident that we’ll play well, but I also know we’re not the only team chasing the title. Other teams will be ready, too. I don’t think we’re the top favourites.”
The Koreans, who also face China and Kyrgyzstan in Group C, won the first two editions of the Asian Cup in 1956 and 1960 when the tournament had only four teams vying for the title.
They have come up short ever since, with four runners-up finishes the closest they have come to joining Saudi Arabia and Iran as three-time champions.
Japan have won the tournament a record four times.
South Korea’s task in the group stage has been made more difficult due to the absence of captain Son Heung-min, who will sit out the first two games under an agreement with his club side Tottenham Hotspur.
Spurs had agreed to release Son for this year’s Asian Games football tournament, which is not a FIFA-sanctioned event, under the condition that he sit out November friendlies and the early part of the Asian Cup.
However, the Koreans should still have enough firepower to see them through to the knockout stage, with Gamba Osaka striker Hwang Ui-jo enjoying a rich vein of scoring form under Bento and Ki Sung-yueng impressing at the heart of the Newcastle United midfield in recent weeks.
If Son can carry his goal-scoring form in the Premier League over to the Asian Cup when he eventually links up with the squad ahead of their final group game against China, the Koreans’ near 60-year wait for another title might soon be over.
(Editing by John O’Brien)