CUIABA, June 17: Out-of-sorts South Korea face a Russia side desperate to prove a point in Cuiaba on Tuesday.
The Korean’s fortunes have nose dived since the heady days of 2002 when they turned the formbook on its head by becoming the first Asian side to make it through to the semi-finals.
But before reaching their eighth consecutive World Cup, they struggled in qualifying, squeaking home only on goal difference.
They also lost World Cup warm-ups to Tunisia, 1-0, and more worryingly a 4-0 drubbing by Ghana last week.
Coach Hong Myung-Bo is fretting over his Taeguk Warriors’ fate in Brazil, aware that defensive frailties will make the going tough for them in a Group H also containing favourites Belgium and Algeria.
Hong, 45, gained iconic status in Seoul after his side-footed penalty took Guus Hiddink’s side into the 2002 World Cup last four.
He insists that rather than regressing, the Korean team has made progress in the last 12 years.
“The fact is that the quality of football in South Korea has developed a lot since 2002,” he declared.
The Koreans arrived in Cuiaba on Sunday, 24 hours before Russia.
And before a training session at a local university, defender Lee Yong took time out to forecast what lay in store for him and his colleagues.
“It’s true the Russian team are quite technical and strong. Maybe the Russians are physically stronger than Asian sides like us but we are well prepared for this game, we’re focussed,” he told the hordes of Korean press.
“We’re well prepared for the match,” he pledged.
Unlike the Koreans, who are part of recent World Cup history’s fixture and fittings, Russia make their return to the feast of football for the first time since 2002, when like in 1994 they failed to make it out of the group stages.
Under Fabio Capello, who guided England to the last 16 in South Africa four years ago, Russia coasted through qualifying and in stark contrast to Tuesday’s opposition are unbeaten in 10 games.
They hold a psychological advantage going into the game at the Arena Pantanal as they saw off South Korea 2-1 in a friendly in Dubai last November.
Capello’s crew set off for Brazil missing one vital component of their assault on the World Cup — captain, Roman Shirokov.
The 27-year-old midfielder’s failure to recover from a knee ligament injury represented a serious blow to Capello’s plans, with Rubin Kazan’s Pavel Mogilevets stepping in to replace him.
Veteran defender Vasily Berezutskiy says the 2018 World Cup hosts are in Brazil to set the record straight.
“We have things to prove in this World Cup,” the CSKA Moscow player, who has 78 international caps to his name, said at the weekend.
“It’s been 12 years since Russia have participated in the World Cup so our objective is to play more than three games, try to qualify from our group and after that we will see.”
Capello’s disciplinarian approach failed to win many friends in the England camp, but it’s gone down well with the Russians.
“Capello demands discipline and it’s a good thing because everyone is working hard, giving 100 percent in every session,” forward Maksim Kanunnikov said.
Fellow striker Alexander Kokorin says he feels pressure to produce on the biggest stage of all.
“I really feel a big responsibility because everybody is talking about me as possibly one of the surprises of this World Cup,” the Dynamo Moscow forward said Sunday.