Young Taeguk Warriors target last-four
Sixteen goals from six matches is the significant goal-scoring rate achieved by Korea Republic as they finished runners-up in September's AFC U-16 Championship, which also served as qualifiers for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015. Although they were edged out 2-1 by Korea DPR in the final, coach Choi Jin-Cheul's Young Taeguk Warriors outscored their peninsular neighbours, as well as joint second best-scorers Australia, in terms of firepower, four goals clear of their rivals.
All the more impressive was their dominant play and relentless attack, underlined in their 3-1 opening defeat of Oman, 2-0 quarter-final victory against Japan and, most notably, a sensational 7-1 semi-final rout of Syria. Even in the final they carved out a series of clear-cut chances, only to see the Young Chollima fight from a goal down to emerge 2-1 winners.
"We are an attack-minded side," coach Choi Jincheul told FIFA.com reflecting on their campaign. "It is hard to determine the team's playing style because each game is different and so are the rivals and our players' individual capability. But I think that we are better in offense than defence. Of course, booking a place at the FIFA U-17 World Cup came as a massive boost for us, although we failed to achieve our goal of winning Asia's qualifying tournament."
Fast progress While Korea Republic's dominance was no big surprise considering their status as two-time winners, only those following their game closely would be aware just how much progress they have made. During last year's qualifier to the Asian finals, the same team were stunned 2-0 by Malaysia with only a victory against Laos in the concluding game sealing their progression.
A year on Korea Republic emerged a different side on the continental stage excelling throughout, including sealing sweet 1-0 revenge against Malaysia during the group campaign. They impressed with their teamwork and showed newly-developed aplomb and concentration, something which carried them through against ultra-defensive rivals.
"I wasn’t coaching the team during the AFC U-16 Championship qualifier last year," Choi explained. "But after taking over I had worked hard alongside the players in improving their skills. We particularly focused on how to breach the rivals' concentrated defence as we aimed to enhance our potency upfront as well as finishing."
Their initial progress was marked out in August's Copa Mexico de Naciones, when Korea Republic finished runners-up behind Brazil in a group which also featured Costa Rica and Canada. "We showed our patience in this competition and our displays provided the team with plenty of confidence," said Choi. "If our players play with more patience and calmness, we will be a better team capable of springing surprises in the coming World Cup."
Vital weapon While the entire Korea Republic team excelled in the Asian competition, it was midfielder Lee Seung-Woo who stood out. A promising player with Barcelona’s youth team, the 16-year-old took the Asian campaign by storm, scoring five times as well as providing four assists which saw him bag the tournament Golden Boot and Most Valued Player double to earn the moniker as ‘Korea Republic’s Messi’.
"He is an outstanding player compared to his peers," Choi said of his starlet. “And he is helping his team-mates become better. This is what makes me happiest because Lee and the rest of the team are working together so well."
In a sense, the prodigy single-handedly steered Korea Republic through to the final. He opened his account by scoring the only goal against Malaysia and was again on target in a 2-0 win against Thailand. Lee proved unstoppable in the knockout phase, completing a brace against Japan which sealed their progression to Chile 2015. Although he scored just a single goal against Syria, he provided four assists as they dismantled the west Asians. Indeed, Lee played such a key role that coach Choi singled him out among the team's driving forces.
He said: "Our main strengths lie in Lee, our pace and passion. But to compete against the world's best in Chile next year, we should improve both the players' individual skills and teamwork. We need to learn how to regulate the tempo throughout the entire game."
Korea Republic have twice reached the quarter-final stage during their four past FIFA U-17 World Cup appearances. Boosted by the current squad's performances, though, Choi has set his sights on breaking fresh ground in the global showpiece.
"Our goal is to reach the last four," he said firmly. "We will keep filling our gaps so we can improve to the level of representing our country. I wish our players learn enough from the World Cup and especially, I hope we can leave a legacy to our football."