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Jun 16, 2014

Russia v South Korea: 50-50 Challenge

RussiaRussia
South KoreaSouth Korea
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Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Russia take on South Korea in Group H, Michael Yokhin (Russia) and John Duerden (South Korea) are your guides.

What's at stake?

Michael Yokhin: Winning the opening game doesn't make certain you will qualify from the group, as Russia know only too well. They have beaten Tunisia 2-0 at their previous World Cup appearance in 2002, only to lose to Japan and Belgium and pack their bags early. At Euro 2012, Czech Republic were convincingly thrashed 4-1, but Russia went out after drawing with Poland and infamously succumbing to Greece.

Nevertheless, the game against the Koreans is absolutely crucial. The confidence isn't high, given the team's tendency to fall apart when it matters most. With group favourites Belgium awaiting them in the next fixture, Russia must take all three points to feel comfortable. Any other result will put their chances of progressing in jeopardy.

John DuerdenA country's opening group match at a World Cup needs no explanation as to its importance. For Korea, a recent poor run of results has lowered expectations and dented confidence. It is very hard to see the Taeguk Warriors bouncing back from a bad performance against Russia. It does not even have to be victory but just a sign the team means business at the World Cup and is capable of matching some of the best in the world.

X factor

MY: Aleksandr Kokorin isn't known yet outside of his country, but he is the main striker in Fabio Capello's tactical plan. In fact, he is the only striker. The 23-year-old Dinamo Moscow star is fast and intelligent, possesses a very good first touch and covers a lot of ground. His movements are usually well timed and he will able to explore the relative inexperience of Korean central defenders to get into scoring positions.

The main question is whether Russian midfield will be able to constantly feed him with quality balls in the absence of star playmaker Roman Shirokov who misses the tournament through injury. There are also doubts regarding Kokorin's conversion rate in front of goal -- it is improving but still very far from sufficient.

JD: It has to be Son Heung-min. Korea need a big performance from a player who should be its biggest star. Fans are used to watching his goals from Germany -- first for Hamburg and then for Bayer Leverkusen -- almost every week on television but have had less Sonsational stuff to cheer in the international arena. Likely to start on the left, it is to be hoped that he receives plenty of the ball and even more space to put Russia in real trouble.

Son Heung-min is the latest star of South Korean football.

Fear factor

MY: Russia are especially vulnerable at the flanks, as right back Andrey Eshchenko clearly lacks international class and left back Dmitry Kombarov is dreadfully out of form. That suits Korea perfectly because their best attacking players are the wingers. Son Heung-min of Bayer Leverkusen is a proven Bundesliga star who has destroyed many defences with his quick feet, sublime ball control and crisp shooting. It is obvious that coach Hong Myung-Bo, a World Cup legend as a player, will order to give him as many balls as possible on the left wing. Norway and Morocco wingers posed Eshchenko a lot of problems in the recent friendlies, so Son can win this game for Korea.

JD: South Korea are relieved that Russian captain Shirokov is missing in Brazil through injury, as midfielders with a habit of arriving late in the area have given them some major problems over the years. That still leaves more than a few danger men and none more so than Aleksandr Samedov. The 29-year-old has made the right-wing spot his own under Capello and was extremely impressive in qualification.

It is not completely clear who will be in Korea's left-back position but whether it is QPR's Yun Suk-young or Park Joo-ho of Mainz 05, they will be in for a tough afternoon against a speedy and savvy winger.

Key battle

MY: Viktor Fayzulin vs. Ki Sung-Yueng. Fayzulin is another lesser known player who is vital for Capello tactically. He is especially important when Russia don't have the ball and usually given instructions to put opponents' midfielders under constant pressure. Ki Sung-Yueng, Korea's very own Steven Gerrard with his great range of passing, will thrive if given freedom in midfield. Fayzulin's ability to close him down will be of extreme importance for Russia.

JD: Kokorin vs. Kim Young-gwon. At the risk of sounding obvious, the Korean back four has to get to grips with the Russian attack. Kokorin has played on the left at times for the national team but is expected to start in a more central role. It is up to Kim Young-gwon to show the forward and the world that Marcello Lippi's faith is not misplaced -- the Italian has the highest opinion of the Guangzhou Evergrande stopper.

Kim is intelligent, comfortable in possession and while no man-mountain, can take care of himself physically. Still, he hasn't faced many players like Kokorin in the Chinese Super League and the striker's pace is sure to present some challenges.

Prediction

MY: It is a close call, as both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. Russia seem to be regressing under the Capello regime, playing worse and worse as time goes by after a relatively promising start in autumn 2012. A bit of optimism has never hurt anyone, so we'll go for a morale-boosting 2-1 triumph thanks to a late winner.

JD: Korea has been shipping goals left, right and especially centre, but should go all out to tighten up. I'll go for 0-0.

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