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The tale of two talismans


Hoping for another miracle

No side has as much to live up to as South Korea following their incredible passage to the semi-finals four years ago.

At the start of the last tournament they had never even won a match, much less progressed beyond the group stage. Four draws was all they had to show from 14 games going back to their first appearance in 1954.

That all changed with group stage victories on home soil against Poland and a well-fancied Portugal side, who were the first of three European giants to be sent packing by Guus Hiddink's team.

Next came Italy in the second round. Trailing 1-0 with two minutes to go, Seol Ki-Hyeon brought Korea level before Christian Vieri missed an open goal in the dying seconds of normal time.

All the Italian whingeing about referee Byron Moreno's admittedly poor performance conveniently forgot about Vieri's howler from all of two metres. Then came the dagger in the heart; Ahn-Jung Hwan leaping above Paolo Maldini to head a memorable golden goal winner.

The Koreans weren't done, taking Spain all the way to penalties in a goalless quarter-final, then nervelessly despatching all five of their spot-kicks. Korea again benefited from some very questionable officiating, not least when goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae sprung several metres off his line to save Joaquin's deciding penalty.

But the phenomenon of home teams getting the rub of the referee's decisions is not a new one. Anyone who has watched football at the Santiago Bernabéu, Anfield or any number of other grounds knows the effect a partisan crowd can have.

They eventually came undone against Germany in the last four, but not before completely rewriting the history of Korean football.

Now the expectations at home are that they will breeze through the group before mounting another assault on the latter stages. While this is by no means a bad team, it would be truly extraordinary if they were to deliver a repeat performance.

One of the keys to Hiddink's success was the preparation time he had with the squad, taking nearly half a year to let the squad gel, engendering a 'club' atmosphere.

Although Dick Advocaat has barely had more than six months in the job, he has taken a similar approach, putting his side through a gruelling schedule of friendlies that included one spell of ten games in six weeks.

Among those matches were encouraging victories against the USA, Mexico and Croatia in which the pressing, organised style that brought such spectacular results four years ago worked to perfection.

Advocaat is one of four Dutch coaches in the tournament, along with Marco van Basten (Netherlands), Hiddink (Australia) and Leo Beenhakker (Trinidad and Tobago) and probably has the hardest job of all, as the weight of the past has already brought down two coaches, Humberto Coelho and Jo Bonfrère (another Dutchman).

Korea's game is based around defending from the front. Every player closes his opponent down and this pressure causes mistakes from all but the best sides.

The tactic requires determination, stamina and fitness, qualities Korea held in abundance in 2002, running their jaded opponents into the ground. This advantage may be significantly reduced in Germany, with their rivals free of jetlag and marginally less tired having had an extra week's rest after the European club season.

The team's biggest name is Park Ji-Sung, who shot to stardom in 2002 and has enjoyed a successful first term at Manchester United, featuring in all but five of their Premiership games.

What he lacks in vision and flair he more than makes up for with his exceptional work rate. His simple, quick passing game arguably fits United's game better than Cristiano Ronaldo.

Park's style is even better suited to Korea, where short passes, astute movement and diligent running all play more of a part in creating goals than individual skill. His preparations have been hampered by a niggling ankle injury, and it will be disastrous if he is unable to pick up where he left off four years ago.

Tottenham Hotspur's Lee Young-Pyo is an equally speedy and energetic player who could be one of the top left-backs in European football were he not almost entirely right-footed.

Advocaat's biggest problems would appear to lie up front, where he is desperately short of in-form strikers.

This lack of a cutting edge in the team was all too clear against the United Arab Emirates in January, a match they lost 1-0 despite dominating throughout. Cha Du-Ri is one of the biggest names in Korean football but was left out of the squad altogether after several years of fairly dismal performances.

And the man pencilled in for a certain starting berth, Lee Dong-Gook, has been forced out by a serious knee injury. Seol Ki-Hyeon went into the 2002 tournament built up by the marketeers as a kind of 'Korean Beckham'. The only thing the two have in common is that both have played under Glenn Hoddle. Lee's injury means he may well start on the right wing in a 4-3-3 formation.

And what of Ahn Jung-Hwan, the national icon who slayed Italy? After the World Cup Perugia president Luciano Gaucci's attempt to sack him was met with widespread derision, but perhaps Gaucci knew something we didn't.

Ahn moved to Japan where he played for Shizuma S-Pulse and Yokohama F-Marinos, before joining Metz this season. He lasted just six months before being packed off to German relegation fodder Duisburg.

Ahn scored just twice for both Metz and Duisburg, and hardly looks like a world-beater, but he will certainly get the respect of his opponents and has already shown his ability to rise to the big occasion.

As a result, there is a huge burden on Park Chu-Young, who does not turn 21 until the day after the final. He made his international debut only a year ago, but has already scored five goals, including winners against Finland and Angola in spring friendlies.

Park is speedy, technically impressive and an absolute assassin from dead-ball situations. He will wear the number ten shirt in Germany and could be one of the young stars of the tournament if he does not succumb to the demands of being Korea's leading attacker.

Group G looks extremely open. France are undoubtedly vulnerable but, in Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, have two players who can win a match almost single-handedly.

Switzerland lack experience but have talented youngsters in Johan Vonlanthen, Tranquillo Barnetta and Philippe Senderos, while Togo look out of their depth but could yet spring the mother and father of all surprises.

There is no reason why the Koreans should not get through the group stage, and the round of sixteen could see a rematch with Spain, which could crank up the pressure on the class of 2006 even further.