Ahead of the fourth edition of their derby in Asian Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the pressure is on Korea Republic as they prepare to host Group 2 leaders Korea DPR tomorrow. The North Koreans leapfrogged their neighbours in the standings on Saturday, courtesy of a 2-0 win at home to United Arab Emirates.
And with Saudi Arabia just one point behind the South Koreans following their defeat of Iran, the Taeguk Warriors suddenly find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. Although Korea Republic have a game in hand on each of their group rivals, coach Huh Jung-Moo knows reclaiming top spot with a victory over the Chollima in Seoul will not be easy.
"We have played them many times before but they are always difficult," he said. "We cannot take the win for granted and we cannot beat Korea DPR on any given day. Let's just admit it. The North Koreans are even ahead of the Saudis and the Iranians in the standings."
Korea Republic and Korea DPR played out two goalless draws in the previous stage of the preliminary campaign, and they shared the spoils again as the final phase began. The only difference from their previous meetings was that there were goals, in a relatively more eventful 1-1 draw, which could be read as a sign of the change of attitude.
On the surface, however, some of the players remained politically correct. Korea DPR striker Jong Tae-Se, who visited Korea Republic with his club, Kawasaki Frontale, for an AFC Champions League match last month, revealed his hope of joint qualification. "What could be better if Korea Republic top the group and Korea DPR finish second," said the 25-year-old. "I think it's still fifty-fifty. We don't know what will happen in the games to come."
The Chollima beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 at home, before their 2-0 reverse of United Arab Emirates sent them top of the pool, and Jong and Co arrived in Seoul safe in the knowledge that a draw will keep them two points above their arch-rivals.
While Kim Jong-Hun's charges were celebrating the victory in Pyongyang on Saturday, Korea Republic managed to come back from behind to defeat a subdued Iraqi side 2-1 at home in a friendly a few hours later. In spite of displaying arguably their most attractive football under Huh's leadership with fluid moves in the middle of the park, the Taeguk Warriors exposed their weakest side at the same time: the lack of a cutting edge in front of goal.
"We couldn't convert some good chances against Iraq, and talked about how to improve. I think it was a good result and good experience though," said captain Park Ji-Sung. "Even if the North Koreans are on top, it's important for us to stay cool under pressure and play with what we've got. We need to put substance over style."
So what will happen on Wednesday? As Jong once admitted, "even God wouldn't know". But fans across Korean peninsula will be hoping to see what is different from the peaceful, goalless draw they shared at Seoul's FIFA World Cup Stadium back in June.