October 8, 2019 / 1:30 PM / 14 days ago

Soccer-Bento only has eyes for Sri Lanka in build-up to North Korea clash

HONG KONG, Oct 8 (Reuters) - South Korea coach Paulo Bento will aim to keep his players’ minds focused on their Sri Lankan opposition on Thursday as the tension mounts ahead of their historic World Cup qualifier in neighbouring North Korea next week.

Bento’s side host the South Asians in Hwaseong in the second round of Asia’s qualifying tournament for the 2022 finals in Qatar having notched up a 2-0 win over Turkmenistan in their opener last month.

Three points should be almost guaranteed against a nation ranked 202nd in the world and who were hammered 6-0 on Saturday in a friendly match by Malaysia.

But while Bento is fixated on Thursday’s match, the spectre of Tuesday’s politically sensitive meeting in Pyongyang looms large for the Portuguese coach and his squad.

“My players and I will play Sri Lanka first and then we’ll face DPR Korea,” Bento told the Asian Football Confederation’s website.

“So we’re focusing only on Sri Lanka. We’ll prepare for DPR Korea after.”

While the two Koreas face each other regularly at all levels of the game, the pair have never played a competitive senior international in the northern nation’s capital.

They were last drawn to face one another in the final group phase of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but North Korea’s home game was switched to Shanghai in September 2008.

That encounter ended in a 1-1 draw before South Korea won the return meeting in Seoul seven months later as both nations went on to secure berths for the finals in South Africa.

North Korea, who have six points from their first two games and lead Group H, should go into the high profile meeting well rested after being granted a clear round on the schedule on Thursday.

South Korea, meanwhile, are looking to qualify for the World Cup for a 10th straight time - an Asian record - while North Korea will be aiming to keep alive their hopes of a third finals appearance.

Only the winners of each of the eight groups are guaranteed to advance to the next phase of qualifying, with the four best runners-up also progressing.

Elsewhere, China coach Marcello Lippi is expected to rest Espanyol striker Wu Lei when his side face minnows Guam in Guangzhou in Group A while Japan, who have represented the continent at every World Cup since 1998, should expect few problems in Group F against Mongolia.

Australia will be runaway favourites to take all three points when they host Nepal in Group B in Canberra and Iraq will play at home in World Cup qualifying for the first time in eight years when they welcome Group C rivals Hong Kong to Basra.

In Group D Vadim Abramov will take charge of his first game as Uzbekistan coach when the Central Asians take on Yemen following the sacking of Hector Cuper last month as Saudi Arabia meet surprise group leaders Singapore. (Reporting by Michael Church, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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