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Korea Republic's Kim relishing return to action as U23 side get set to take on senior Taeguk Warriors

Paju: Much has changed since Korea Republic won the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 title in January.

The title meant Korea Republic would lead Asia's challenge in the Tokyo Olympics and it was a mission head coach Kim Hak-bum was relishing.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, brought the world to a screeching halt as the Tokyo Olympics, pushed to next year, was among numerous sporting events either postponed or cancelled.

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The Korea Republic squad have not kicked a ball competitively since defeating Saudi Arabia in the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020 final and Kim is looking forward to his team playing the senior Taeguk Warriors squad in friendly matches on Friday and Monday.

"I feel alive again," said Kim at the National Football Centre (NFC) in Paju. "I think the players are also really excited to be here. Our fans have been thirsting for national team action, and we'll give them something to cheer about."

#AFCU23 - Thailand 2020 Highlights

Kim will use the friendlies to gauge players who were part of the title-winning squad in January and newcomers hoping to earn selection for next July's Tokyo Olympics.

Kim said he is expecting the players to make the most of the opportunity to impress.

"I hope someone will step up and be the hero for our side," Kim said. "Every one of these players is capable of that."

Just like the senior side, Kim's 23-man squad consists players who ply their trade domestically due to COVID-19 restrictions. While the U23 squad were fortunate to have played competitively in 2020, Paulo Bento's senior side have not, with their title-winning EAFF E-1 Championship campaign last December having been their final assignment.

Bento said he expects a tough match against the Korea Republic U23 side, who will have a point to prove against their senior counterparts.

"As a football coach, I've always had to deal with that kind of pressure, and that's part of my job," Bento said. "I will handle all the pressure, and I hope the players will just have fun training and playing these matches."

Korea Republic, bidding to qualify for a 10th consecutive FIFA World Cup Finals, are second in Group H of the Asian Qualifiers on eight points.

Turkmenistan top the group with nine points, with Lebanon and DPR Korea also on eight points after five matches. Korea Republic have played one game less. Sri Lanka, without a point in five matches, complete the group.

Sources: Yonhap, AFP, AFC

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