|South Korea's national football team players train at the Paju Football Center in Gyeonggi Province, Sunday. / Courtesy of KFA|
By John Duerden
South Korea woke up on Saturday morning on top of Group H in qualifications for the 2022 World Cup. The team slipped to second by mid-afternoon, as rival Lebanon managed to defeat Sri Lanka 3-2. It meant that the pressure was on. By bedtime, however, the Taeguk Warriors were back in first with a 5-0 win over Turkmenistan. It was a game that had to be won and was won with plenty to spare.
It was a welcome return to World Cup qualification after 19 months for Paulo Bento's men and the result was not really in doubt once Hwang Ui-jo opened the scoring after just 10 minutes. The Bordeaux striker also scored the fifth goal from close range after some marvelous work from Son Heung-min.
Son did not get his name on the scoresheet but Nam Tae-hee, Kim Young-gwon and Kwon Chang-hoon did and they helped to make it a perfect evening for South Korea with perhaps the only downside being that, really, the home team should have scored more. But the fact that Turkmenistan's best player was goalkeeper Rasul Charyyev showed that it was a dominant performance.
"I am very satisfied with the game," coach Paulo Bento said. "We executed everything that we practiced during the week," he said. "I am especially happy for my players. Scoring five goals isn't easy to do against any team."
While the win was expected, it was also welcome, and while questions remain over coach Bento after a 3-0 loss to Japan in March, the camp is much happier now. There are bigger tests to come, though not just yet. On Friday, there is a game against Sri Lanka, ranked 204th in the world and a team that had lost all five games so far. This is as close to a guaranteed win as you can find in soccer and the only question is how many goals Korea will score.
This is just the second round of qualification for the World Cup. Of the 39 Asian teams still active ― down from 40 as North Korea withdrew in May ― only the eight group winners and four best-performing second-placed teams progress to the third round which starts next March.
That means the big game in the short term is the June 15 clash with Lebanon. Assuming the boys from Beirut defeat Turkmenistan next week ― not a guaranteed result but probable ― then both Korea and Lebanon will be on 13 points each when they meet but the home team will have the advantage with a better goal difference. That means a tie will be enough for Korea.
"There is still work to do," Bento said. "We have a few days to rest before we play the next game and we have to stay focused until the end of the round. This is a good start however and we are looking forward to the next game."