Spurs ace Son back on road to World Cup after turbulent Asian Cup

By AFP   March 18, 2024 | 07:37 pm PT
Spurs ace Son back on road to World Cup after turbulent Asian Cup
Son Heung-min in Tottenham Hotspur jersey. Photo by Reuters
Son Heung-min and South Korea must move on from their turbulent Asian Cup when they return to World Cup qualifying Thursday, while Japan face North Korea in a double-header that sees them travel to Pyongyang.

Asian football is back on the road to the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico, a month after Qatar retained the continental crown on home soil with a 3-1 victory over Jordan.

Much has happened since South Korea were dumped out 2-0 by unfancied Jordan in the semi-finals of the Asian Cup, including the sacking of coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

It emerged that skipper Son and Paris Saint-Germain attacking midfielder Lee Kang-in had been involved in a fracas on the eve of the match, leaving the Tottenham attacker with a dislocated finger.

Legendary German striker Klinsmann was dismissed after having promised to take South Korea to their first Asian title in 64 years. He was replaced on an interim basis by Hwang Sun-hong.

Son and Lee have since made up, and Hwang included the duo in his squad for the home game with Thailand on Thursday and the return fixture five days later.

"Lee Kang-in wanted an opportunity to apologize to fans and his team-mates from the bottom of his heart, and Son Heung-min said we should all embrace Kang-in and move forward," Hwang, South Korea's under-23 coach, said.

"Based on my experience as a national team player, I think issues like this can end up making the team even tighter," he added.

Before Klinsmann's departure, South Korea thrashed Singapore 5-0 and won 3-0 in China to top Group C and will be fully expected to collect six more points against Thailand.

Japan are also eager to move on from the Asian Cup, where they went out 2-1 to Iran in the quarter-finals and never justified their tag as pre-tournament favorites.

Hajime Moriyasu remained coach despite the disappointment and Japan face two matches against North Korea, traveling into the unknown on March 26 when they play at Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang.

Moriyasu will have to make do without Brighton winger Kaoru Mitoma, who looks set to miss the rest of the Premier League season with a back injury.

Winger Junya Ito has been left out of the squad after an allegation of sexual assault. He denies the claim and is suing for 200 million yen ($1.3 million) in damages.

Japan have a perfect six points from two games with 10 goals scored and none conceded.

Qatar skipper bows out

China's Asian Cup was also a letdown, bundled out in the group stage with two points and no goals.

The Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic took over from Aleksandar Jankovic and China travel to Singapore for his first game in charge.

Of the Asian Cup finalists, Qatar will be expected to make it four wins from four in Group A when they play Kuwait home and away.

They will do it without Hassan Al-Haydos, who captained them to a second Asian Cup crown in a row last month but retired at the weekend from international duty aged 33.

He made a record 183 appearances for his country, scoring 41 goals.

While Qatar are on course for the next round of World Cup qualifying, Asian Cup runners-up Jordan sit third behind Roberto Mancini's Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan in Group G on one point from two matches.

With only the top two progressing, Jordan need to pick up six points in back-to-back games against basement side Pakistan.

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