S. Korea chasing Olympic men’s football berth without stars in Qatar

With some key players missing, South Korea will look to secure a spot in their 10th consecutive Olympic men's football tournament at the qualifiers kicking off this week in Qatar. South Korea will play in Group B at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup. The competition doubles as the AFC qualifiers for the Paris Olympics. The top three nations from this 16-team event will secure spots in the Olympics, while the fourth-place team will face Guinea in an intercontinental playoff later this year. Coached by Hwang Sun-hong, South Korea's U-23 squad will open the tournament against the United Arab Emirates at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium in Doha. That will be 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in South Korean time. South Korea will then take on China at 4 p.m. Friday, back at Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium, or 10 p.m. Friday in Seoul. The young Taegeuk Warriors will close out the group phase against Japan at 4 p.m. next Monday at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Al Rayyan, just west of Doha. I t will be 10 p.m. the same night in Seoul. There are four groups of four, and the top two teams from each group will reach the quarterfinals, which will be played on April 25 and 26. The semifinals are April 29, followed by the third-place match on May 2 and the final on May 3. South Korea played at the 1988 Seoul Olympics as the host country and have qualified for every Olympic tournament since 1992, when the current, under-23 age limit was put in place. This year's qualification campaign, though, could be an especially challenging one for South Korea, and getting out of the group stage isn't considered a sure thing. South Korea have had difficulty against Japan in all age groups in recent years. China, though not as strong as South Korea on paper, could still present problems with their physical play. Compounding these issues will be the absence of some of South Korea's most important players on both ends. At the end of March, Hwang selected five players based in foreign leagues for his squad. But th ree of them, Yang Hyun-jun of Celtic FC, Kim Ji-soo of Brentford FC and Bae Jun-ho of Stoke City, have been withheld by their respective clubs. Only Kim Min-woo of Dusseldorf and Jeong Sang-bin of Minnesota United will be available from the overseas-based group. Since the AFC tournament isn't on the FIFA international match calendar, clubs aren't required to send their Asian players for the occasion. Hwang himself had earlier acknowledged that he wasn't sure if he would have the services of all five players and that he had a Plan B in place just in case. Yang and Bae would have been important playmakers on offense, while Kim Ji-soo, despite being only 19 years old, would have been a starting center back. Kim Min-woo has been training with the national team for more than a week, but Jeong is only scheduled to join the squad later Monday, the eve of South Korea's first match. Among domestic-based players, FC Seoul midfielder Paik Sang-hoon was treated for a knee injury earlier this month and belatedly joine d the national team last Monday, two days after they held their first training session in their Dubai camp. Even with these issues threatening to foil South Korea's Olympic bid, Hwang said he will try not to let them affect the team's play on the field. "We've had some difficulties, but these things happen when you prepare for a tournament," Hwang said last Thursday following the team's first training session in Doha. "We will try to overcome adversity the best we can and grab our ticket to the Olympics." Source: Yonhap News Agency