SEOUL (Reuters) - Shin Tae-yong takes charge of South Korea for the first time on Thursday, knowing that failure to defeat fierce rivals Iran in front of some 60,000 fans in Seoul could lead to his side missing a World Cup finals for the first time since 1982.
‘Baptism of fire’ does not quite cover it.
Shin replaced the fired Uli Stielike in July in the wake of shocking defeats to China and Qatar and while his side occupy Group A’s second automatic qualification spot for the 2018 finals, there is no room for error.
Unbeaten Iran (20 points) have already booked their ticket to Russia as group winners, while Korea (13) have Uzbekistan (12), who play China on Thursday, breathing down their neck a point behind in third.
Victory over Iran at Seoul World Cup Stadium would ensure the Koreans need only avoid defeat against the Uzbeks in Tashkent, should the White Wolves beat China, in their final qualifier to secure that second automatic berth.
However, after four straight 1-0 defeats to the Iranians, South Korea will have their work cut out, and Shin is determined to get on the front foot early.
“We can’t allow Iran to score first,” Yonhap News quoted him as saying at a recent news conference. “We have to get the opening goal, that way we don’t have to worry about them trying to play mind games with us.”
It has been a rocky qualification campaign for the Koreans, who have been in something of a tailspin since reaching the Asian Cup final in 2015.
Injuries to key players such as Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min and Swansea City’s Ki Sung-yueng certainly took their toll, but as a whole, the side have looked disjointed and nervous since the start of the third qualifying round.
“Disjointed” and “nervous” are not words that could be applied to Thursday’s opposition.
The Iranians have been Asia’s standout team over the last year, racking up six wins and two draws in their eight qualifiers without conceding a single goal, and rising to 24th in the FIFA world rankings.
Powerful and confident, Iran would certainly not be cowed by the home support, coach Carlos Queiroz said.
“I think it will be a little bit easy for us to play,” Yonhap quoted Queiroz as saying. “Usually at home, we play with 100,000 (fans), so it’s easier for us to play with 60,000.”
Iran, who became the second nation after five-times champions Brazil to qualify for the World Cup, were thriving on the growing competitiveness of the Asian region, added Queiroz.
“It’s much better for Asia to have six or eight competitive teams. Rivals give a lot of fun, and a lot of entertainment, and I think this is what fans like to see.”
Editing by John O'Brien