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Tokyo Olympics – Preview: AFC U23 Champions Korea Republic aiming for more glory in Japan


Tokyo: 2020 AFC U-23 Championship winners Korea Republic are set to appear in their ninth consecutive Summer Olympics and could be on course to repeat their medal-winning heroics from 2012.

Korea Republic have always put a major focus on the football competition at the Olympic Games and with this year's tournament being so close to home, there is no doubt that Kim Hak-bum's men will be highly motivated to shine at Tokyo 2020.

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Overview

Having previously finished as runners-up (2016) and fourth on two occasions (2013, 2018), Korea Republic's U23 side finally ended their wait for the big prize as they defeated Saudi Arabia in the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 final.

The result followed on from Korea Republic's triumph in the football tournament of the 2018 Asian Games where coach Kim also led the side to the title and the 61-year-old tactician will be keen to make it three-on-the-bounce with success at the 32nd Summer Olympics.

Helping him to do so is a team brimful of some of the Continent's best young talent who have already shown their worth domestically in the K League 1 and on the Asian stage at the AFC Champions League.

#AFCU23 - Final: Korea Republic 1-0 Saudi Arabia (AET)

The bulk of the side who qualified in Thailand have been included in the travelling party to Japan, among them the tournament's MVP Won Du-jae and the competition's Best Goalkeeper Song Bum-keun.

Defender Jeong Tae-wook, who scored the winner in the final, along with stand-out attackers Lee Dong-jun and Lee Dong-gyeong, who have also gone on to make their debuts for the senior team, are also expected to play significant roles.

Coach Kim has reinforced the spine of his squad with his picks for the three overage players, all with senior national team experience, in the form of defender Park Ji-soo, midfielder Kwong Chang-hoon and striker Hwang Ui-jo.

With such a wealth of talent at his disposal, it was a headache - in a good way - for coach Kim to narrow his roster down to the selected names for Tokyo 2020.

"These players are like my children. But we can only take a limited number of players," Kim said. "I'd like to thank those players who sacrificed so much to send the team to the Olympics."

Recent warm up games against high calibre opposition in Argentina (2-2) and France (1-2) will put Kim's charges in good stead when it comes to matches at the tournament proper.

History

Korea Republic have a proud history at the Games, having first appeared in the football competition as hosts in 1988 and never failing to qualify since with Tokyo 2020 set to be their ninth consecutive Summer Olympics.

While it took until their third appearance for Korea Republic to register their first win at Atlanta 1996, the East Asians have since gone from strength to strength reaching the quarter-finals in Athens in 2004 before their historic campaign at London 2012.

A team including names like Ki Sung-yueng, Koo Ja-cheol and Park Chu-young went all the way to the bronze-medal play-off and saw them defeat archrivals Japan to earn their place on the podium and a first ever medal in the Olympics' football competition.

Korea Republic took another strong squad to Rio 2016 but were disappointingly eliminated by Honduras in the quarter-finals.


Key players

Kwon Chang-hoon

One of the three wildcard players over the age of 24, Kwon will be looking to impress on the international stage after a recent return from Europe to join Suwon Samsung Bluewings. The attacking midfielder can play a variety of roles in the final third and should help bring the additional experience and leadership the side needs to compete at this level.

Song Min-kyu

Equally adept at playing on either the left flank or in a central role just behind the striker, the 21-year-old’s versatility should be a massive asset to the squad. Enjoying another successful season domestically, Song made his senior international debut in the Asian Qualifiers against Sri Lanka, and recently made the move to perennial powerhouse Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

Song Bum-keun

With three K League 1 winners medals, a Korean FA Cup, Asian Games gold and being part of the 2020 AFC U23 Championship-winning squad with Korea Republic, Song Bum-keun knows fully well what it will take to succeed in Tokyo. Already tipped as a future goalkeeping option for the senior squad, this will be Song’s last tournament with the youth team and he will undoubtedly want to add yet more silverware to his trophy cabinet to close out this chapter of his career.

Group challengers

Of all the groups, coach Kim will have been privately delighted to have been drawn in Group B, avoiding any of the top European and South American teams.

Instead, they will have for company New Zealand, Romania and their 2016 nemesis Honduras, who stunned the United States in qualifying.

Of their opponents, New Zealand possess the most experienced squad with English Premier League veterans Chris Wood and Winston Reid in their line-up, as well as a smattering of talent from across Europe, while Romania were unable to gather their best players leaving them with a promising but raw collection who have struggled lately.

Honduras could be the most intriguing opponent with Korea Republic having bitter memories of playing the Central Americans back in 2016. Attacking midfielder Rigoberto Rivas, who plies his trade in Italy, will be one to watch out for as Honduras aim to improve on their fourth place finish five years ago.

Nevertheless, with the talent at their disposal, Korea Republic will be expecting to progress without too much fuss and go deep in the tournament. There's every chance they could at least replicate their efforts of 2012.

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