Korea coach staring down ‘most important’ World Cup qualifier to date

South Korea’s upcoming World Cup qualifying match against Kuwait will be the team’s most important one to date, its head coach said Monday.

Uli Stielike’s South Korea headed to Kuwait on Monday for a key World Cup qualifying match later this week, hoping to stay undefeated in the regional qualification tournament.

The showdown in Kuwait City on Thursday will be South Korea’s fourth match in Group G in the second round of the Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The kickoff will be 5:55 p.m., local time, and 11:55 p.m. in Seoul.

Both South Korea and Kuwait have won their first three matches without allowing a goal. South Korea are at the top thanks to their superior goal difference, plus-13 to plus-12.

Speaking to reporters at Incheon International Airport, Stielike said the magnitude of the match isn’t lost on the team.

“We will be fighting with the first place in the group at stake,” he said. “You could even say this match is worth six points. That’s how important this is.”

There are eight groups of five nations in the current round, and the eight group winners, along with the four best runners-up, will reach the next round. A win over Kuwait should put South Korea in the driver’s seat with four matches to go.

South Korea have competed in the past eight World Cup finals, dating back to the 1986 competition in Mexico.

South Korea, ranked 53rd, are coming off a pair of resounding victories, first a 8-0 rout of Laos and then a 3-0 victory at Lebanon for their first win in the Middle East nation since 1993.

In their last two matches, Kuwait, ranked 128th, pounded Myanmar 9-0 and beat Laos 2-0.

South Korea are shorthanded even before the match, after losing two key offensive players. Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son Heung-min has been sidelined with a foot injury, suffered in a recent league match against Manchester City. Crystal Palace midfielder Lee Chung-yong is dealing with an ankle injury.

Stielike chose not to name replacements for the two. He explained that he felt he could still face Kuwait with what he has on hand.

“Given that we will start 11 players and can use three substitutions, only 14 players will see action,” the coach said.

“Even with 21 players, there still will be a handful who won’t get to play. So I felt 21 would be enough for this match.”

South Korea and Kuwait most recently met in the group stage at the AFC Asian Cup in January this year. South Korea prevailed 1-0 in a physical affair.

Stielike admitted he “doesn’t have fond memories” of that meeting.

“Even though we won, it wasn’t an easy match for us,” he said.

“We have to note that Kuwait also won a difficult road match against Lebanon. This one is going to be difficult for us again.” (Yonhap)