|Paulo Bento, center, head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, watches his players during practice at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By John Duerden
It's a long road to the 2022 World Cup and South Korea is about to take its first steps on home soil on Thursday and the game could not be easier ― on paper at least. Sri Lanka will come to Hwaseong, not far south of Seoul, The South Asian island country's team is ranked 202 in the world, a full 165 places below the Taegeuk Warriors.
Only eight nations on the entire planet are seen as weaker than the islanders. To put it into perspective, Sri Lanka is placed between the U.S. and the British Virgin Islands.
It all adds up to what should be the simplest of games for South Korea. Failing to beat Sri Lanka would be perhaps the worst result in the team's history. It is so unlikely that it is virtually unthinkable.
Coach Paulo Bento needs however to keep his players focused and not thinking too much about the much bigger deal that is next Tuesday's game. That is the small matter of a trip to Pyongyang to take on North Korea. There will be a lot of attention on that game but first Sri Lanka offers three points, the same number they get for defeating North Korea.
"My players and I will play Sri Lanka first and then we'll face North Korea," Bento said. "So we're focusing only on Sri Lanka. We'll prepare for North Korea after."
Sri Lanka also offers a chance for Korea's forwards to get into scoring mode. After all, the backline is hardly likely to be tested too much against a team that has only ever won three World Cup qualifiers in its entire history.
Some Korean attackers are already playing pretty well, for their clubs at least. Hwang Hee-chan and Son Heung-min have been looking good in the UEFA Champions League. If the European-based pair of attackers can find a way to replicate club form for country then all will be well. Son is the senior star and has been helping out.
"When I was younger, Heung-min told me what I should do on the field, and he's turned out to be right," Hwang, who plays for Salzburg in Austria, told reporters "I am grateful for his advice and I want to keep learning from him."
Hwang has not always played in his best attacking position for his country but, regardless, knows that three goals in 28 international matches is not exactly a stellar record.
"Honestly, I'd love to score goals," Hwang said. "But helping the team win is more important. So if one of my teammates has a better look at the net, I'll try to set him up." If he can play against Sri Lanka, and especially North Korea, like he did against Liverpool last week then there should be some fireworks.
This is South Korea's second game in Group H after a 2-0 win in Turkmenistan in September. Only the top team is guaranteed a place in the next round when the fun really begins and there will be tough games with potential opposition such as Japan, Australia or Iran.
First though, it is all about Sri Lanka and making sure there are no mistakes.