South Korean players celebrate their 4-0 victory over Moldova in their men's football friendly match at Mardan Sports Complex in Antalya, Turkey, last Friday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
With or without their captain and best player, South Korea will try to extend their World Cup appearance streak to 10 with a win over Lebanon when the final Asian qualification round resumes this week.
South Korea will travel to Sidon for their Group A match against Lebanon at Saida Municipal Stadium on Thursday. The kickoff is at 2 p.m. local time, or 9 p.m. in South Korea.
With six out of 10 matches in the books in the ongoing round, South Korea are in second place in Group A with 14 points, two back of Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) are in third with six points.
There are two groups of six in the final round. The top two nations from each group will secure automatic berths for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, while the third-place teams will clash in a playoff for the right to compete in the last-chance intercontinental playoff later.
Given the gap between themselves and the UAE, South Korea can lock down at least the second seed in the group with a combination of their win over Lebanon and the UAE's loss to or draw with Syria on Thursday. If they can't get the job done this time, South Korea's next opportunity will come next Tuesday against Syria.
South Korea have played at every World Cup since 1986 in Mexico.
And South Korea will likely have to do that without Son Heung-min, the longtime captain of the team who has been sidelined for a couple of weeks after suffering a leg injury playing for Tottenham Hotspur.
South Korea boss Paulo Bento held out hope Son would somehow be available for the national team, but Tottenham aren't expecting Son back until after the international break in early February.
Bento will be missing South Korea's other Premier League player, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hwang has been out since December with a hamstring injury, and he, too, won't likely be back until after South Korea's two matches.
In their first meeting of the final round in September, South Korea squeaked by Lebanon 1-0 on a goal by Kwon Chang-hoon. It came on the heels of an utterly uninspiring scoreless draw against Iran.
South Korea, though, have been a vastly superior team since their wobbly start to the final round. They earned a hard-fought, 1-1 away draw against Iran in October and then blanked the UAE 1-0 and Iraq 3-0 in November. They have been patient and methodical on offense and airtight on defense.
The pattern held in two recent friendly victories over Iceland and Moldova during training camp in Turkey. Bento took 25 players from South Korea's K League and two more from Japan's J. League to Antalya on Jan. 9, giving some new faces extended looks in those two matches and some two weeks' worth of training sessions.
Europe-based stars in midseason weren't eligible for camp but are available for World Cup qualifiers. Bento named five players from Europe and one from Qatar for the occasion. In a corresponding move, Bento cut seven K Leaguers from his camp roster.
Of the quintet coming in from Europe, Hwang Ui-jo of FC Girondins de Bordeaux is fresh off his first career hat trick in France on Sunday.
On defense, Fenerbahce center back Kim Min-jae should bring his usual excellence on the backline alongside his trusted center back partner, Kim Young-gwon.
The players settled down in Istanbul before a trip to Lebanon, but a severe snowstorm in the city prevented any on-field training and limited the players to conditioning workouts on bikes and treadmills in their hotel gym Monday. They will be stuck inside for Tuesday's morning session, the Korea Football Association said. (Yonhap)