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S. Korea coach predicts 'difficult game' vs. Iran with top seed at stake in World Cup qualifying group

Paulo Bento, head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, speaks at a press conference at the Korea Football Association (KFA) House in Seoul on Monday, in this photo provided by the KFA. (Yonhap)
Paulo Bento, head coach of the South Korean men's national football team, speaks at a press conference at the Korea Football Association (KFA) House in Seoul on Monday, in this photo provided by the KFA. (Yonhap)

With one box checked, Paulo Bento has quickly shifted his focus to the next goal to achieve.

Under his tutelage, South Korea have already booked a ticket to Qatar for this year's FIFA World Cup with two qualifying matches left. Few would have batted an eye if Bento had chosen to take his foot off the pedal for the rest of the current qualifying campaign.

Instead, Bento on Monday called up most of his usual suspects in a bid to win his team's final two qualifying matches this month. South Korea will host Iran in Seoul on March 24 and wrap up the final Asian qualifying round by visiting Dubai to play the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on March 29.

With 20 points after eight matches, South Korea are in second place in Group A of the ongoing round, two points back of Iran. The top two teams from each of the two groups in this round will earn automatic berths. Iran and South Korea are already in, while Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are still duking it out for the two tickets in Group B.

Instead of playing it safe this month, Bento has taken dead aim at Iran for the top seed in Group A. Winning the group and rising in the FIFA rankings should also help South Korea's position in the World Cup draw, allowing them to avoid some tough countries, though Bento said he wasn't yet thinking ahead to the draw.

"We have two games. We should think how we're going to face the next opponents and how we can do our job and try to finalize this qualifier in the best possible way," Bento said at his online press conference Monday. "And that is to get the six points and finish in the first place. After that, we will see what's coming and see where we're going to be in the draw. I think we have a good challenge before that."

Facing Iran has been a challenge for South Korea for years. South Korea's last victory against the Middle Eastern foe came in January 2011. In their most recent meeting, held in Tehran in October, the teams ended in a 1-1 draw, with South Korea blowing a 1-0 lead in the second half.

South Korea have managed just nine wins against 10 draws and 13 draws all time versus Iran.

"In the physical aspect as well as in the tactical one, Iran have players that can break balance in our team, players that have experience," Bento said. "I have no doubt about their quality. We will try to reach the victory in order to reach the first position in the group. I am sure that it will be a difficult game but at the same time, I am convinced that we can do that and we're going to try to do that without any doubt."

To that end, Bento went back to the likes of Son Heung-min, who leads Tottenham Hotspur in goals this season, and Hwang Ui-jo, FC Girondins Bordeaux forward and one of Bento's most trusted offensive options.

But the coach also made a couple of surprise choices on defense, with Suwon FC defender Park Min-gyu and Seoul E-Land back Lee Jae-ik.

This is Park's first senior national team callup. Lee had been brought in during the previous World Cup qualifying round in October 2019 but didn't play in any matches then.

With the starting center back Kim Young-gwon playing with a yellow card -- one away from automatic suspension -- and another veteran Kwon Kyung-won apparently not 100 percent, Bento said he wanted extra options on his back line. He reserved particularly high praise for the 26-year-old Park, who had appeared in 12 matches for the under-20 national team.

"Park is a good player in the technical aspect. We know he has good defensive principles," Bento said. "It's a good opportunity to see him in our context." (Yonhap)

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