South Korea, Switzerland, France and Togo bring the curtain down on the group stage of the 2006 FIFA World Cup this evening, and the question of who qualifies from Group G is still unresolved going into this final wave of games.
With France widely tipped to secure the victory they need by at least two goals over already eliminated Togo in Cologne, the pick of the games is undoubtedly the match up between South Korea and Switzerland in Hanover’s AWD Arena.
Both teams enter this evening’s game ahead of Les Bleus in the group and neither will relinquish their hopes of qualification easily. Each of them have drawn with France and defeated Togo, with the Swiss just holding the edge at the top of the group on goal difference. If the two teams draw this evening then goal difference and goals scored will be crucial if the French can only beat Togo by one goal.
The two teams have never met before but both have been impressive so far at the finals. The fact that one of them could be eliminated without losing a game is a real possibility, and it would be heart breaking for players and fans alike.
British bookmakers make Switzerland clear favourites for this evening’s match, but South Korea’s Dutch coach Dick Advocaat is confident that his team can make history tonight by becoming the first South Korean team to finish top of a World Cup group.
“Finishing as number one in the group has never happened before for South Korea, so my team is eager to make history,” he revealed on Thursday.
“The only problem is that we must play against a good side like Switzerland, but we are a good side too. They may have high quality defensive players but we will see how they do if we put them under pressure. The main difference between the Swiss team and ours is that they have ten or eleven players who play in strong European leagues. However, if we play the way we have up to now there is a good chance we can get a result.”
Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-Sung is also confident that the unlikely 2002 semi-finalists can win Group G.
“There’s no reason why we can’t finish top of the group,” he said.
“We have a real togetherness, which can work in our favour. If we play like we did in 2002 then who knows what can happen?”
Advocaat has no injury concerns over his squad tonight, and his main decision will surround whether he bows to media pressure and chooses to recall the popular Ahn Jung-Hwan to the starting line up. The Duisburg forward scored after coming on as a substitute against Togo in South Korea’s opening match, becoming South Korea’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup Finals.
Advocaat, who is leading South Korea in their sixth consecutive finals, is suffering from the same problems that most other coaches have had ahead of the final group games. Four of his players face suspension from the next round if they receive another yellow card this evening, but Advocaat will risk all of them as his team tries to secure its qualification for round two. He will be looking for a solid start from his team this evening, something that has evaded the South Koreans throughout the majority of their World Cup Finals matches. South Korea have now conceded the first goal in 18 of their 23 finals matches, having let in early goals against France and Togo.
Switzerland’s excellent form to date at the 2006 World Cup has delighted their coach Kobi Kuhn. He admitted on Wednesday that this year’s tournament was really an experience building mission for his young team ahead of the 2008 European Championships, which Switzerland will co-host. As it stands, the Swiss are on the verge of qualification from a difficult looking group.
“All of our efforts with this young team have been aimed at peaking in 2008,” revealed Kuhn, who will be taking charge of his country for the 50th time today.
“I originally thought that this World Cup would be too early for them but it now looks like they are ahead of schedule. My focus has therefore switched – all I want is three points to ensure that we qualify for the next phase. We always go out to win, playing in attacking manner if we can. But, having said that, if the match ends in a draw I will be very happy as we will qualify.”
Switzerland’s defensive improvement in the opening games of the finals is a feature of their performances so far. They have now kept two consecutive clean sheets, having conceded goals in their previous twenty-two matches – a finals record. The form of the centre-halves, Patrick Mueller and Philippe Senderos, as well as the goalkeeper, Pascal Zuberbuehler, have been particular bright spots for Kuhn and the Swiss fans in the last couple of weeks. The coach and the supporters will be hoping that the good run can continue this evening because a third consecutive clean sheet will be enough to send the Swiss into the next round.
Six Swiss players face suspension if they are booked tonight, but Kuhn should follow Advocaat’s lead and play all of them. Kuhn will be more concerned by the absence of midfielder Daniel Gygax, who has been very impressive so far. The Lille man has badly bruised stomach muscles and definitely misses this evening’s crucial game. Gygax suffered the injury in the 2-0 win over Togo and his replacement that day, Hakan Yakin, will probably take his place in the starting line-up.
By Mark Robinson
South Korea: Lee Woon-Jae; Choi Jin-Cheul, Kim Young-Chul, Kim Dong-Jin; Song Chong-Gug, Kim Nam-Il, Lee Ho, Lee Young-Pyo; Park Ji-Sung, Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon
Switzerland: Zuberbuehler; Magnin, Senderos, Mueller, P Degen; Wicky, Vogel, Cabanas, Barnetta, Hakan Yakin; Frei
Referee:: Horacio Elizondo (Argentina)