‘Break through a solid defense.’
Roberto Mancini’s (Italy) Saudi Arabia topped Group F at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup and will face Jürgen Klinsmann’s national team in the round of 16 at 1:00 a.m. ET on Jan. 31 for a place in the quarterfinals.
Mancini, who took charge of Saudi Arabia in August last year as the “highest-paid coach” in world soccer, is credited with elevating Saudi football to the next level with his perfected tactics. He has continued to build momentum with his customized tactics, switching between a back four and three depending on the opponent.
Klinsmann also acknowledged that “the team has stabilized over time since Mancini’s arrival.”
Mancini is a ‘mastermind’ who has won the Italian Serie A, English Premier League (EPL), and UEFA European Football Championship (Euro). As expected from an Italian, he has tightened up the defense since his arrival. The Saudis have only conceded one goal in their three group stage matches. It was also a penalty kick (PK) goal and they haven’t conceded a field goal. Their recent A-match record also boasts an iron shield, with eight consecutive games unbeaten (6 wins, 2 draws) and only one concession in that span.
South Korea has a number of ‘specialty strikers’, including Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Lee Kang-in (Paris Saint-Germain), and Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhampton). Despite conceding a lot of goals (six), they still managed to score eight goals in their three group games, especially against a team that likes to play a tight defense like Malaysia.
For the round of 16, Hwang Hee-chan is likely to return to the starting lineup after recently shaking off a hip muscle injury. He made his comeback as a late substitute in the final group game against Malaysia on Sept. 25. Although he did not score an offensive point, he threatened the opponent’s backline with his characteristic dribbling and breaking through.
“Hwang Hee-chan is fit enough to start,” said an official from the Korea Football Association. His return could help take some of the pressure off strikers like Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in, who are often heavily scrutinized by opponents.
South Korea is evenly matched against Saudi Arabia in the all-time series with five wins, eight draws and five losses. Most of these games have been one-goal affairs. The last time South Korea scored multiple goals against Saudi Arabia was a 2-0 victory in the 2008 FIFA World Cup final qualifier in South Africa.
“The Saudis definitely have their weaknesses,” Klinsmann said. I think we can have a good game if we play well,” Klinsmann said.