SAO PAULO (Reuters) - In their final World Cup warm-up against Ghana earlier this week, South Korea wore different shirt numbers from their official squad list in a bid to outfox observers from Group H watching the match in Miami.
The only people who looked confused were the South Koreans, however, as the ‘Black Stars’ tore them to pieces in a 4-0 rout that has further dampened the mood ahead of their opener against Russia on Tuesday in Cuiaba.
South Korea, the first Asian side to reach the last four of a World Cup when they finished fourth on home soil in 2002, have limped into Brazil losing four of their last five games.
Coach Hong Myung-bo, who took over from Choi Kang-hee after a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, has pledged to tighten up his defense for the group opener but simply focusing on a dysfunctional back four may not be enough.
Against Ghana, the Koreans were overrun in midfield, leaving the defense exposed time and again, with much of the blame put on the poor tackling and tardy backtracking of central pairing Ki Sung-yueng and Han Kook-young.
However, the truth about solid teams is that they defend from the front with the coach favoring lithe little forward Park Chu-young over towering target man Kim Shin-wook.
Center back Hong Jeong-ho alluded to that on Friday when he told Korean media the entire team should be held accountable when they concede several goals, while his defensive partner Kim Young-gwon said attackers were now starting to show more willingness to pitch in on defense.
While coach Hong is right to be concerned about the form of his defenders, he must also look at the performance of his strikers in terms of who gives more to the team.
Park has been Hong’s choice in attack since he brought him back into the international fold for the first time in a year against Greece in March.
His inclusion in the squad provoked no little controversy in the Korean media, who questioned whether the oft-injured forward was the right man to spearhead Korea’s frontline in Brazil given that he could not get near a first team spot at Arsenal.
Hong had also selected Park as an overage-player at the London Olympics when he coached the Koreans to the bronze medal and while the nippy striker has many qualities, stout defensive work is not one of them.
Which is why Hong’s decision to consign Kim to the bench is mystifying.
The hulking 1.98m center forward, nicknamed “Our Giant” by his Ulsan Hyundai fans, is exactly the kind of striker South Korea need to deploy in Brazil.
In hot form earlier this year in the domestic K-League, Kim is a huge threat at the set-piece, as well as defending it, but it is his ability to provide an outlet to an under-pressure defense that could be vital in the heat of battle in Brazil.
The fragile Park struggles to cope against physical defenders, frequently squandering possession and putting Korea back on the back foot, but Kim provides the perfect outlet option, holding up play and letting his side build with the ball.
When asked by reporters why he persisted with the ineffective Park against Ghana, keeping Kim stewing on the sidelines, Hong replied: “We are already well aware of his strengths, we didn’t need to reveal them to our opponents.”
However, Kim has played a total of 15 minutes in Korea’s last two warm-ups against Ghana and a 1-0 home loss to Tunisia in May, robbing him of any chance to build up an understanding with his team mates.
South Korean media speculate Kim could be Hong’s “hidden card”, to be used as an impact substitute, but it would make more sense to use Kim as a battering ram to wear down defences before introducing Park the scalpel.
Which weapon Hong wields against Russia could prove crucial to Korea’s chances of advancing from a group that also includes classy Belgium and unpredictable Algeria.
Editing by Justin Palmer