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Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min fitness a concern ahead of Uruguay match

Son Heung-min, left, and Hwang Hee-chan train in Doha, Qatar on November 17.  [NEWS1]

Son Heung-min, left, and Hwang Hee-chan train in Doha, Qatar on November 17. [NEWS1]

The Korean Football Association confirmed over the weekend that midfielder Hwang Hee-chan is still struggling with discomfort in his hamstring. With Son Heung-min still recovering from surgery, neither of Korea’s top two forwards are in peak condition just four days before the Taeguk Warriors play their first game of the World Cup.

Hwang’s hamstring has been a concern since November 12, when he was not even given a place on the bench in Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, the club’s last game before the international break.

Post-match reports suggested he was out with hamstring discomfort, a phrase repeated by the Korean camp over the past 10 days with repeated assurances that discomfort did not mean injury.

That game against Arsenal came just days after Hwang played the full 90 minutes in a Carabao Cup match against Leeds United, his first full game so far this season. He showed no significant signs of discomfort during that game, but may have overextended himself with a much longer outing than he was used to.

Hwang has been struggling in front of goal with Wolves and has failed to score since February 24, a major dry spell that now includes 26 appearances.

But for the national team, it is a completely different story. Hwang Hee-chan is a Taeguk Warriors regular and appears in almost every game as either a starter or a new pair of legs in the second half.

He made four appearances for Korea this year, appearing for at least 60 minutes in every game he was available for and scoring two goals; against Chile on June 6 and Costa Rica on September 23.

But while Hwang’s ongoing “discomfort” gives little indication of his playing condition, the talismanic captain Son is definitely dealing with a much worse injury.

Earlier this month, Son underwent surgery for one or more orbital fractures after breaking his eye socket during a collision in the 29th minute of a Champions League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Marseille at Stade Velodrome in Marseille, France on November 1.

He returned to training last week wearing a large black carbon fiber mask – a look that has already earned him the nickname Captain Zorro in the Korean press – but it remains unclear how fit he will be to play when Korea take on Uruguay. on Thursday.

Son spoke to reporters last week and made it clear that while he feels good running and training, he is not a doctor and has no idea what his recovery will look like.

“I’m not a doctor,” Son said on November 16. “I will be the first one to update you on my situation if I know anything. What I can tell you now is that I will always do my best and all footballers play with some kind of risk in every game. ”

While Son’s fitness remained a question mark, the man himself says he absolutely intends to play at the World Cup, even if doing so could be risky.

Question marks over the fitness of both Son and Hwang Hee-chan leave head coach Paulo Bento in a difficult position. The pair are two of Korea’s most experienced and versatile midfielders, and with regular forward Hwang Ui-jo’s performance also in serious doubt, Bento is left with increasingly few options.

While Jung Woo-young is the midfielder most closely followed by Son, he has his own role to play in front of the defense and can do very little to fill the shoes of any attacker. Lee Jae-sung is another veteran with a lot to offer, but in recent years he has been more of a playmaker than a goalscorer.

Kwon Chang-hoon and Hwang In-beom are both fairly reliable options, although Kwon has been pretty inconsistent recently and Hwang In-beom also tends to fall into a role.

Instead, Bento may have to dig a little deeper and rely on some of the less experienced Taeguk Warriors. Cho Gue-sung, Paik Seung-ho, Song Min-kyu and Jeong Woo-yeong have all played well in the past, and Lee Kang-in’s club performances suggest he has a lot more to offer than he’s given a chance for be granted. the past.

Bento has four more days of training before he has to make that difficult choice. Korea will face Uruguay on Thursday at 16:00 at Education City Stadium in Doha, Qatar, or at 22:00 in Korea.

BY JIM BULLY [jim.bulley@joongang.co.kr]

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