- Korea Republic qualified for Russia 2018, their tenth World Cup
- Their inconsistent form very nearly cost them their place
- New coach Shin Taeyong has vowed to play attacking football
Well established as Asia’s most successful side in FIFA World Cup qualifying, Korea Republic reaffirmed that status on the road to Russia. The Taeguk Warriors again demonstrated their uncanny ability to negotiate the preliminary stage by finishing second in Group A and securing a record tenth appearance at the global finals.
That moment of joy came, however, at the end of a turbulent campaign in which they won just four of their ten matches. Korea Republic’s erratic form cost coach Uli Stielike his job and left the team on the very brink of elimination heading into yesterday’s concluding fixture in Tashkent. Had they lost and Syria beaten Iran, the Taeguk Warriors would have sat out the World Cup for the first time since 1982. They did, of course, stand up to that pressure though, and under new boss Shin Taeyong held off their desperate Uzbek hosts to obtain the point they needed.
Despite their inconsistent form, reflected in the tally of three losses and three draws in the third round alone, Korea Republic still proved up to getting results when it mattered mosts. Nonetheless, Shin, who took charge last month, is aware that his team have their work cut out if they are to compete against the world's best in Russia next year.
— #WCQ (@FIFAWorldCup) September 5, 2017
How they qualified
Under Stielike, Korea Republic sailed through the second qualifying round and were, in fact, the only team to progress without conceding a goal. But while that form initially continued in the third stage with victories over China PR and Qatar, a solitary-goal away loss to Iran sounded a warning note, before defeats to China and Qatar left their fans fretting. Shin steadied the ship, but the Taeguk Warriors still needed two goalless draws - and a little luck - to secure the group's second qualifying spot behind runaway winners Iran.
Korea Republic’s Europe-based stars continue to provide the team's backbone, with Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heungmin the key man in attack and the team's top scorer with seven goals. Captain Ki Sungyueng's importance cannot be overstated either, a point borne by the team’s failure to win in the last two matches the Swansea City midfielder has missed.
At the back, Kim Younggwon is back to shore up the defence after a lengthy period out through injury. Coach Shin also called up as many as nine Asia-based players for the Uzbekistan decider, confirming that he is a coach who will select his squad based on form instead of fame.
Areas for improvement
Defence is obviously the top priority in this respect, and is a key problem for Shin to address. Korea Republic were, after all, top scorers in Group A with 11 goals, but struggled due to conceding ten at the other end – five times as many as section winners Iran.
"We will prepare for the World Cup thoroughly. I'm a man who likes to play an attacking football. People will find out about South Korea's true football power at the World Cup."
Korea Republic head coach Shin Taeyong
Never short of ambition, the Taeguk Warriors will head to Russia 2018 with the clear aim of improving on their showing at Brazil 2014, where they failed to progress past the group stage. Emulating their historic 2002 achievement of reaching the last four is likely to prove a tall order. All the same, Korea Republic will definitely be hoping to at least match their campaign at South Africa 2010, when they reached the second round for the first time on foreign soil.