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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, June 9 (Yonhap) — In an otherwise tedious World Cup qualifying victory over a clearly overwhelmed opponent on Wednesday, South Korea got a glimpse of the future.
The flashes of brilliance were hard to miss.
South Korea defeated Sri Lanka 5-0 in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. No one at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, expected the 39th-ranked South Korea to lose to No. 204 Sri Lanka. The only question was how many goals the team would score.
If head coach Paulo Bento had gone with his usual lineup, then South Korea most likely would have scored more than five goals. But with his team playing after three days of rest and another qualifier coming up on Sunday, Bento elected to rest the likes of Son Heung-min and Hwang Ui-jo, the team’s two best offensive players. The coach went deep into his bench and changed 10 players from the lineup that beat Turkmenistan 5-0 last Saturday.
One of the new faces was winger Lee Dong-gyeong, playing in just his fourth senior international match at age 23. He nearly opened the scoring less than two minutes in, displaying the kind of speed and fearless shooting that have made him one of South Korean football’s brightest young stars.
Lee got his first international goal in the 22nd minute, and did so by converting a pretty cross from another up-and-comer, the 21-year-old forward Song Min-kyu. It was the international debut for Song, the 2020 K League 1 Young Player of the Year for Pohang Steelers.
South Korea built a 3-0 lead in the first half, with veteran forward Kim Shin-wook scoring twice. Despite the lopsided score early, the team didn’t look as sharp as it did against Turkmenistan. With most members of the starting lineup playing together for the first time, there were some awkward moments in buildup plays.
Things stabilized in the second half, though South Korea had trouble converting several chances near the goal. Hwang Hee-chan made it a 4-0 game in the 52nd, and then one of the most anticipated international debuts for South Korea in recent memory happened in the 71st minute.
The 19-year-forward Jeong Sang-bin was brought in off the bench. He is in the midst of a fine K League campaign with Suwon Samsung Bluewings, scoring big goals against tough foes as a rookie.
And Jeong needed only five minutes to get his first international goal. Lee Dong-gyeong fired a shot from outside the box that looked to be on its way to the net, but Jeong deftly redirected it home from the goalmouth to give South Korea a 5-0 lead.
Jeong nearly scored another one five minutes later, this time with his own midrange strike that missed the target to the left.
It can be difficult to take much out of predictable wins such as this one. But for South Korea, the one notable positive is that their reserves got some valuable reps in a relatively stress-free setting.
Lee, Song and Jeong likely won’t see much action against tougher opponents later in the qualifying stage, but there can never be enough depth. As these three youngsters continue to grow, Bento will get to enjoy the luxury of having youthful energy and impressive offensive skills on the bench.
Bento said he will continue to monitor the progress of the trio and see if they deserve to be back on the national team down the road.
“The door to the national team is always open. The age doesn’t matter,” the coach said. “We pick players based on their abilities, skills and fit to our style of play. These three players may be young but are quite talented. We called them up this time because we felt we really needed them.”
Bento has said he prefers not to discuss individual players publicly, but he went as far as saying he was “satisfied in all aspects” with Jeong’s performance.
But the coach also cautioned against hastily anointing Jeong as the next star.
“We’ll have to keep an eye on him patiently. This is his first appearance with the senior national team,” Bento said. “I was curious how well he’d play within the national team structure, and he’s done very well so far. Let’s see how well he continues to play for his club.”
Jeong admitted he felt the pressure of being the only teenager on the squad and living up to his considerable hype. It was with the help of some fun-loving teammates that he was able to relax — to a point where he wasn’t nervous at all by the time he made his debut.
“I didn’t think I’d score a goal so early. I was just happy to get into the match,” Jeong said. “It didn’t matter how many minutes I’d play. Whether it’s one minute or five minutes, my job as a national team player is to do my best.”
Now that his first international match and first goal are both out of the way, what could be next for Jeong?
“I’d like to play in the World Cup,” he said.