FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan singles out a quintet of players who will be crucial to Korea Republic’s 2018 FIFA World Cup hopes.
It has been 16 years since Korea Republic – led by inspirational figures such as Hong Myung-bo, Park Ji-sung, Ahn Jung-hwan and Lee Won-jae – produced a stunning fourth-place finish at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
But, in the three tournaments that have followed, the Taegeuk Warriors have only reached the knockout round once – notching a miserly two wins in ten matches.
There is some genuine star quality at coach Shin Tae-yong’s disposal this year, but performances and results leading up to the tournament have been far from impressive.
So, if Korea Republic are to give a good account of themselves in Russia 2018, who will have to step up? FOX Sports Asia identifies their five potential game changers.
Following a difficult season which saw him part ways with Swansea after failing to help them avoid relegation from the Premier League, Ki Sung-yueng is one man hoping for a change in fortune this summer.
With 101 international games to his name and still only 29, the dynamic midfielder is firmly on course to break the record of 136 caps jointly held by legends Cha Bum-kun and Hong Myung-bo.
Curiously, Ki was recently trialled as a sweeper in Shin’s experiment with a five-man defence, which failed miserably in a 3-1 loss to Bosnia-Herzegovia. Just days later, the captain was reinstated in the heart of midfield against Bolivia and expect him to be there when their Group F campaign gets underway.
After being a back-up to Jung Sung-ryong at the last World Cup, and having to play second fiddle to Kim Jin-hyeon at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Kim Seung-gyu is set to be Korea Republic’s No. 1 in Russia.
He may not be a household name given he has spent most of his career in his homeland before moving to Japan’s Vissel Kobe in 2016 but, while he is not the type of goalkeeper that grabs the headlines, he is a steady pair of hands and commands his area well.
Considering defence is the area where the South Koreans look most out of depth, Kim’s performances could prove to be a decisive factor.
Following a disappointing spell with Borussia Dortmund, Park Joo-ho is back in the K League 1 with Ulsan Hyundai, where he has largely featured as a holding midfielder.
Nonetheless, he started his career as a left-back and, with none of the other full-backs acquitting themselves particularly well recently, found himself in his natural position once more against in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Bolivia.
Park may be the type of traditional full-back who focuses first on his defensive duties before bombing forward in support, but his experience and tenacity could just make him exactly what the South Koreans need at the back.
There is really little more than needs to be said about Son Heung-min and how important he will be to how far Korea Republic go at the World Cup.
Growing in stature with each passing season, the 25-year-old is the sole world-class player Shin can call upon and, if he performs to his best, the Taegeuk Warriors could just claim a few scalps along the way.
The fact that opposition teams know how dangerous he is and will likely be double-teaming him at times could also open up spaces for others to exploit.
There has been a lot of hype over the Shin’s selection of Lee Seung-woo, considering he was once tipped for greatness when coming through the youth ranks at Barcelona, and has looked promising since moving to Serie A with Verona.
However, given he remains a raw talent, he may actually be more useful as an option off the bench with his youthful exuberance running at tiring defences.
Instead, it is Hwang Hee-chan who looks to be better equipped to have an impact from the opening whistle, having spent the last three years with Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.
Hwang has no qualms in having to perform his defensive duties from the front, but his movement and finishing ability will also worry opposition defences.