The Korea Herald


S. Korea not trying to avoid Japan in knockouts: Klinsmann

By Yonhap

Published : Jan. 24, 2024 - 21:23

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South Korean men's national soccer team Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (left) speaks during a press conference Wednesday at the Main Media Centre in Doha, a day before the team's group match against Malaysia in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. (Yonhap) South Korean men's national soccer team Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann (left) speaks during a press conference Wednesday at the Main Media Centre in Doha, a day before the team's group match against Malaysia in the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup. (Yonhap)

With one group match remaining at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup, South Korea face a rather interesting conundrum.

If they beat Malaysia convincingly to close out Group E play Thursday in Qatar, South Korea could win their group and face Japan, the likely runner-up in Group D after a shock loss to Iraq, in the round of 16. Playing the highest-ranked Asian team in the first knockout match isn't ideal for the so-far underperforming Taegeuk Warriors.

On the other hand, South Korea, even with a win over Malaysia, could still finish second in Group E behind Jordan on goal difference. In that case, South Korea would face either Saudi Arabia or Thailand in the round of 16, a far more palatable matchup than Japan on paper.

But would South Korea, seeking their first Asian Cup title since 1960, try to deliberately avoid Japan in the round of 16? Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann insisted Wednesday that reports suggesting his team would seek to finish second in their group are "not true."

"We don't want to avoid anybody," Klinsmann said with a smile during his prematch presser at the Main Media Centre in Doha. "We want to go from game to game, and respect the next opponent."

And that next foe, Malaysia, will present a tough challenge, Klinsmann said, despite being ranked 130th and having already been eliminated from knockout contention following consecutive losses to Jordan and Bahrain.

"They learned a lot from the first game (a 4-0 loss to Jordan) and played much, much better in the second game (a 1-0 loss to Bahrain)," Klinsmann said. "We expect a very difficult game tomorrow against Malaysia. Whoever comes after that, it's not important today. We can talk about that tomorrow night after the game. First, we have to win our game, do our homework, play well, show you that we deserve to win."

Klinsmann reiterated his earlier point that there is no easy match at an Asian Cup.

"It doesn't matter when you meet certain countries," he said. "They're all very good. They're all motivated, they all fight and they're all emotional."

Klinsmann said South Korea learned that lesson in their 2-2 draw against Jordan on Saturday. South Korea salvaged their one point thanks to Jordan's own goal during stoppage time in the second half, with their top offensive players, such as Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, unable to get much going offensively.

"We know we can play better. There's a lot of room for improvement for us," Klinsmann said. "It's a good thing. You try to get into a rhythm in a tournament and you try to grow into a tournament. I hope that we keep growing. And hopefully, if it comes out the right way, we'll get better each game."

Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who started against Jordan after first-choice custodian Kim Seung-gyu suffered a tournament-ending knee injury during training last week, said he and his teammates have long put the past result behind them.

"We haven't been thinking much about whatever happened earlier, and we've been preparing for the next match really well," said Jo, whom Klinsmann announced at the end of the presser as Thursday's starter. "We expect a difficult match but we'll go in with confidence and try to grab three points."

Playing defensive-oriented underdogs presents challenges for South Korea in how their offensive stars are defended. Klinsmann said it was natural for a superstar like Son to draw extra attention from opposing defenders whenever he touches the ball. But the coach has faith in his captain to come through for the team.

"I think Sonny knows how to deal with that," Klinsmann said. "He has to find himself space and he does that. So we all hope that he obviously puts his stamp on the game during the tournament."

Aside from Kim, Klinsmann has other injury concerns. Left back Lee Ki-je, who has started both of the first two matches, is dealing with a hamstring injury. The only other natural left back on the team, Kim Jin-su, has yet to play in the tournament because of his own injury woes. Kim Tae-hwan, a right back who has come off the bench the past two matches, has some right calf discomfort.

Klinsmann has multiple center backs on his hands but precious few left backs or right backs. He let on that he will have a different defensive alignment Thursday.

"We have different options. You're going to see them tomorrow," he said with a smile.

Jo said it won't matter who gets the start on the backline because every defender is capable.

"We do have some injuries, but no matter who steps in, I think they will play well," Jo said. "We've been meeting a lot and talking about tomorrow's match quite a bit. I think we'll be able to play better tomorrow than before." (Yonhap)