The Korean U-20 team is now just one game away from a second consecutive World Cup final, but that game promises to be a serious challenge: The young Taeguk Warriors face Italy in the semifinals on Thursday evening.
The U-20 squad, currently chasing history as the first Korean team to reach the final at back-to-back FIFA tournaments at any level, advanced to the semis after beating Ecuador and Nigeria in the knockout stage.
This is also the first time that any Korean team has reached back-to-back semifinals at a FIFA tournament.
The team has been cohesive throughout the tournament both attack and defense-wise, having scored eight goals and conceded five goals in five matches. Despite the team’s success, they’ve approached every game on the backfoot with far less possession and far fewer chances created than any of their opponents.
A total of six players have contributed to the eight goals, with forward Lee Young-jun and defender Choi Seok-hyun taking two goals apiece.
Lee Seung-won has made the most goal contributions, with one goal and four assists — the most assists by any player at the tournament.
U-20 manager Kim Eun-jung, however, is wary of Italy.
“The semifinalists are the most capable teams,” Kim said during a pre-game press conference on Wednesday. “We will prepare well for tomorrow’s game.
“We thought we had to prepare well for the game as Italy is a strong and well-prepared team. But it is hard to make changes in a short period and our players just have to do what they have done well.”
Kim analyzed Italy by watching the team’s group stage game against Brazil in person on May 22.
The young Taeguk Warriors are at a slight disadvantage stamina-wise, since they played extra time in the quarterfinals against Nigeria a day after Italy reached the semifinals.
“Our players could not fully recover in the previous game, but we had time to do so since we had three days to rest, one more day than we did the quarterfinals,” Kim said. “I think that our players could play tomorrow’s game in slightly better form than how they did in the quarterfinals.”
Kim also rested key players for Wednesday’s training session.
“Tactics and strategies are important, but from this point on, it comes down to who focuses better to get the results, and I do believe that we can get good enough results,” Kim said.
This may be a chance for the young Taeguk Warriors to reach the final for a second successive time in history, but that road will be tough as Italy is also looking to secure its first-ever U-20 World Cup title.
Italy is reaching the semifinals for a third consecutive tournament and has been the most prolific team among the semifinalists, with 11 goals in five matches.
Six of those goals came from the tournament’s top scorer Cesare Casadei, who has scored mainly through set-pieces.
Italy’s defense, on the other hand, looks shaky. They have conceded a goal in every single game — six goals total — apart from the match against the Dominican Republic in the group stage.
“I think the players have to counter attack at a faster pace in the match against Italy with more players getting involved,” Ahn Jung-hwan, former national team player and MBC commentator said after Korea’s game against Nigeria on Sunday. “There are two games left, and I want them to return home after playing both games, not the semifinal and third-place game, but the semifinal and final.”
The young Taeguk Warriors will face either Uruguay or Israel in the final, if they beat Italy.
The match between Uruguay and Israel will end shortly before Korea’s game against Italy.
Back in Korea, fans will gather at 6 .am. to cheer the U-20 team on at Gwanghwamun Square in Jongno District, central Seoul — the same venue used by the Red Devils to support the senior football team’s games.
The fans cheered the team at Seoul World Cup Stadium in Mapo District, western Seoul four years ago, when they reached the final for the first time in history.
Korea will take on Italy on Thursday at the Estadio Ciudad de La Plata in La Plata, Argentina at 6 p.m. or at 6 a.m. on Friday morning in Korea.
BY JI-HWAN PAIK [email@example.com]