In a surprise to no one, Tottenham forward Son Heung-min is headlining South Korea’s squad for the third straight World Cup as coach Paulo Bento places his hopes on his superstar striker who is recovering from a fractured eye socket.
Bento also selected Napoli defender Kim Min-jae and Mallorca attacking midfielder Lee Kang-in but left out speedy Ulsan Hyundai winger Um Won-sang when he named his 26-player roster Saturday for the tournament in Qatar.
Son, who has scored 35 goals in 104 internationals, hasn’t played since Nov. 2 when he sustained a fracture around his left eye following a collision with Marseille’s Chancel Mbemba while playing for Tottenham in the UEFA Champions League.
While recovering from surgery, Son said this week that he expects to play in Qatar with a protective mask, reassuring fans on Instagram that he wouldn’t “miss this for the world.”
But there are concerns whether he would be able to display something close to his top form following the injury-related layoff, after Bento spent years carefully building his offense around Son’s speed, two-footed shooting reflexes and dead-ball accuracy.
At a media conference in Seoul, Bento said it remains unclear when Son would be able to resume training with the national team, saying his condition was being analyzed day-by-day.
Separate from the 26 players officially on his roster, Bento is also taking Suwon Samsung forward Oh Hyeon-gyu as an emergency reserve who could step in if Son or other injured players aren’t fit enough to play.
“The most important (thing) is he recovers as well as possible, feels comfortable,” Bento said of Son.
Son won the Premier League’s Golden Boot last season after sharing the scoring lead in English football’s top flight, strengthening his case as the country’s greatest player ever.
Before Son’s injury, some analysts had considered Bento’s squad as the strongest team South Korea has ever assembled, at least on paper, with Son being supported by several players in their 20s and 30s getting regular minutes in European football.
Still, even if Son is healthy, South Korea is seen as an outsider to get out of Group H, which contains Uruguay, Portugal and Ghana.
Son isn’t the only injured player on Bento’s roster. Kim Jin-su, who has been Bento’s first choice at left fullback, is dealing with a hamstring injury. Kim’s fitness is crucial as Bento relies heavily on his fullbacks to provide width to the attack, although the space they leave behind has created defensive problems South Korea has struggled to fix.
Qatar marks South Korea’s 11th appearance at the World Cup and its 10th straight. The country has reached the knockout rounds only twice — making the semifinals at home in 2002, and the last 16 in the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
South Korea breezed through Asian qualifying but has looked underwhelming in recent friendlies, including Friday’s laborious 1-0 win over Iceland at home. That match came at the cost of defender Park Ji-su, who sustained an ankle injury that left him out of the World Cup squad.
With Son recovering from an injury, the pressure is on other attackers such as Wolverhampton winger Hwang Hee-chan and Jeonbuk Hyundai forward Cho Gue-sung Hwang Ui-jo to step up.
Despite the team’s defensive problems, Bento at least has a solid center back pairing in veteran Kim Young-gwon and Napoli star Kim Min-jae, who brings a rare combination of size, speed and strength to the team.
Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu (Al Shabab), Jo Hyeon-woo (Ulsan Hyundai), Song Bum-keun (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Defenders: Kim Min-jae (Napoli), Kim Young-gwon (Ulsan Hyundai), Kwon Kyung-won (Gamba Osaka), Cho Yu-min (Daejeon HanaCitizen), Kim Moon-hwan (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors) ,Yoon Jong-gyu (FC Seoul), Kim Tae-hwan (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Jin-su (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors) ,Hong Chul (Daegu FC)
Midfielders: Jung Woo-young (Al Sadd), Son Jun-ho (Shandong Taishan), Paik Seung-ho (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Hwang In-beom (Olympiacos), Lee Jae-sung (1.FSV Mainz), Kwon Chang-hoon (Gimcheon Sangmu), Jeong Woo-yeong (SC Freiburg), Lee Kang-in (Mallorca), Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhamton), Na Sang-ho (FC Seoul), Song Min-kyu (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Forwards: Hwang Ui-jo (Olympiacos), Cho Gue-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)