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We can show we’re Asia’s best, insists Korea Republic's Lee

Seoul: Lee Dong-gyeong believes that the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 provides the perfect opportunity for Korea Republic to prove they are the best team on the Continent.

The East Asians have been one of the strongest teams in the competition over the years, finishing runners-up in 2016 and reaching the semi-finals in 2014 and 2018 but, despite always finishing in the top four sides, they have yet to lift the title.

Korea Republic will again begin the tournament as one of the favourites to be crowned champions and Ulsan Hyundai midfielder Lee is desperate for his country to claim a trophy that has so far eluded them.

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“It’s a huge opportunity for me and my teammates, and it gives me a special feeling to represent my country at international tournaments,” said Lee.

“We have put in a lot of work to prepare and it is one of the main tournaments Korean fans are looking forward to next year.

“All the teams from around Asia will showcase their talents [at the AFC U23 Championship], so it gives us the chance to prove we are the best team in Asia.

“We definitely want to win the trophy and we will do whatever we can to achieve that. We are all looking forward to it and I’ll try my best to make the Korean fans proud.”

The young Taeguk Warriors topped a qualifying group comprising Cambodia, Chinese Taipei and Australia in Phnom Penh in March, with Lee finding the back of the net in all three games and finishing as his country’s top scorer on six goals.

Indeed, it was the 22-year-old’s equaliser in a 2-2 draw against Australia that ensured Korea finished on top of the standings after he had earlier scored a hat-trick against Chinese Taipei and a brace against Cambodia.

Korea have been paired in Group C in Thailand alongside China PR, who they open their campaign against in Songkhla on January 9, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the defending champions Uzbekistan, who eliminated them in 2018.

“We will not underestimate any of our opponents but I would rather focus on what we can do rather than the teams we’re up against,” said Lee.

“China, Iran and Uzbekistan all have qualities, but if we work on our own strengths and weaknesses, I believe we can prove we are the better team, so my priority is to focus on us.

“I was able to finish top scorer in qualifying because of my teammates, who always give 100 percent and, with a little bit of luck too, I achieved something special.

“If we can maintain the same level of concentration and dedication that we did in the qualifiers, I’m sure we can make something special happen.”

In what has been a breakout year for Lee, he has had his fair share of ups and downs. He made his debut for the senior national team in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 joint qualifiers against Sri Lanka in October, but would suffer disappointment on the domestic scene.

Ulsan fought it out with Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors until the final day of the K League season when, after needing just a point to secure the title, his side slipped up at home to Pohang Steelers as the Jeonju club were crowned champions.

“Playing for the senior team was always my dream since I started playing football and I’ve already learnt a lot from being around the best players in Korea,” added Lee.

“They gave me a lot of advice and told me to believe in myself, and training alongside those players has been such a valuable experience.

“I also learnt a lot with Ulsan this year. We performed well and did our very best, but Jeonbuk are also a great team.

“I believe we showed it’s possible to become champions in the coming years, and what happened this year will bring the whole team together and desperate to do better next year.”

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