The fitness of Son Heung-min has dominated the agenda in South Korea over the past three weeks and his availability for their World Cup opener against Uruguay remains in the balance.
The Tottenham striker suffered a fractured eye socket in the Champions League clash with Marseille on 1 November – an injury that has kept a nation on tenterhooks ever since.
He has worn a mask in training since undergoing surgery and was pictured heading the ball for the first time in training on Monday. Coach Paulo Bento has been happy to keep fans guessing, placing a gagging order on the Koreans discussing Son’s injury with the media.
In the unlikely event, he doesn’t make it, it will create a headache for Bento given the strength of Korea’s other attacking options.
Hwang Hee-chan has yet to score in 11 appearances for Premier League strugglers Wolves this season while Hwang Ui-jo has fared similarly at Greek side Olympiacos.
While Korea frets over the status of their experienced striker, Uruguay can count on at least one of theirs.
Although Edinson Cavani may miss out due to an ankle injury, Luis Suarez is fit and raring to go in what will be his final World Cup.
It may be his swansong at this level but former Uruguay forward Diego Forlan does not believe that will give the 35-year-old extra motivation.
Forlan told El Pais: “For Luis, just putting on the Uruguay shirt is motivation enough. He’s always going to want to do things right because that’s his nature. He won’t have extra motivation because it’s his last World Cup.”
South Korea and Uruguay are joined in Group H by Portugal and Ghana and Forlan is aware of the importance of the opening game.
He added: “I think Uruguay is looking good. We have an even group, although we are always competitive.
“The first game is key, especially as it’s an even group and then we play Portugal, who I think are better than they were at the last World Cup.”
Players to Watch
Uruguay: Luis Suarez
Suarez may no longer be the scourge of European defenses following his move to Nacional, but he has continued to find success, helping his boyhood club to the Uruguayan title. MLS seems his next move, and he will be hoping to put himself in the spotlight with some trademark feisty displays in Qatar.
Suarez needs one more goal to equal Oscar Miguez’s record of eight by an Uruguayan at the World Cup.
South Korea: Son Heung-min
It seems inconceivable that Son won’t start in the mask he has donned in training since arriving in Qatar.
The 30-year-old could become just the second Korean to score at three separate World Cups, after Park Ji-sung, if he can find the target in the 2022 edition.
His club form for Tottenham hasn’t been the greatest in 2022-23 so far, with just five goals and two assists in 1,499 minutes of competitive action – three of those goals coming in one game against Leicester City back in September. Expect more from him in this World Cup, however, as a talismanic figure in the South Korean side.
Uruguay vs South Korea Head-to-Head and Key Numbers
The two teams have locked horns eight times across all competitions, with six of these meetings being friendlies. Uruguay has dominated proceedings against the Asian team with six wins to their name. Korea has picked up just one win while one game ended in a draw. They met twice in the FIFA World Cup as well. Uruguay has a 100% record in these meetings, recording a 1-0 win in 1990 and defeating Korea 2-1 in the 2010 World Cup. Exactly half of the meetings between the two teams have produced over 2.5 goals. Uruguay has scored at least a goal in each of their eight games against Korea, while Korea has failed to score in four games in that period. Both teams have suffered just one defeat in their last nine games across all competitions.
Uruguay vs South Korea Prediction
La Celeste has a strong record against South Korea and will be feeling confident of a positive outcome from the game. However, it should be noted that Uruguay suffered a 2-1 defeat when the two teams last met in 2018.
Taegeuk Warriors will have Son Heung-Min available for the campaign opener and that will be a big morale boost for them. While we expect them to put in a solid display against Uruguay, the South American giants have quality players in every position in their squad and should be able to secure a narrow win.
Prediction: Uruguay 2-1 South Korea.