World Cup 2014: 6 Key Battles That Will Shape South Korea's Clash with Belgium
Thursday, June 26 will see the last fixtures of the 2014 World Cup group stages take place, as South Korea take on Belgium in a bid to secure an unlikely progression towards the round of 16.
It won't be easy: The Koreans must pick up all three points in order to have any shot at qualification. An Algeria win over Russia would rule out South Korea; a draw would require South Korea to win by at least three goals; and a Russian win would mean South Korea need to win by a greater margin than Russia.
But Hong Myung-bo's side must focus on themselves first against a Belgium side tipped by pundits and fans to be dark horses in Brazil. They haven't been firing on all cylinders just yet, but still top the group with passage to the knockout stages already secure.
Here are six key battles that will shape South Korea's clash with Belgium, and possibly who Group H sends to the round of 16.
Lee Yong vs. Eden Hazard
There are no two ways about it: South Korean right-back Lee Yong will face one of his toughest challenges in his playing career when he takes on Hazard on Thursday.
The only silver lining is that Hazard has failed to impress so far during the tournament, as Belgium have struggled to turn on the style as so many had predicted.
Lee will need lots of support from his colleagues to hold off a threatening Belgian attack.
Yun Suk-Young vs. Dries Mertens
But left-back Yun Suk-young might have an even tougher job than Lee on the right: He'll be coming up against Dries Mertens, who has been Belgium's star in Brazil.
Having scored a goal after coming on as a substitute against Algeria, Mertens started in the win over Russia and tormented the Russian defence time and again with his pace, acceleration, dribbling and direct running.
Hong Myung-bo will be wary at leaving so much space on the left flank for Mertens to exploit, like the Russians did in their round-two fixture, but Yun will regardless face an opponent high in confidence and in top form.
Perhaps a good test for the South Korean ahead of Queens Park Rangers' Premier League campaign next season.
Han Kook-Young vs. Kevin De Bruyne
It's not exactly been a stellar campaign for South Korea's central midfield, as their lack of steel, physicality and pace have left them exposed through the center.
And when Han Kook-young takes to the field on Thursday, he will be tasked to track the forceful runs of Kevin de Bruyne, whose increasing maturity and intelligence is making him one of the hottest midfield prospects in the world.
De Bruyne's positioning and timely runs make him a dangerous opponent, while his ability to drop deep and get into the box makes him hard to track.
Yet another battle where it's hard to see the Koreans coming out on top.
Ki Sung-Yueng vs. Marouane Fellaini
There are two positions that, on paper, have the potential for more excitement from a South Korean perspective.
The first is Ki Sung-yueng, deep in the heart of Hong's midfield, where he will come up against a Marouane Fellaini who has seemed to banish his dismal form at Manchester United to flourish at the World Cup finals.
Yet Ki is a cultured passer with the poise and composure to dictate games if he is given the opportunity to, and he also poses a threat from long distance and from set pieces.
Fellaini has been operating in a more attacking role for Marc Wilmots' side so far in Brazil, but he will need to be wary of Ki imposing his influence on Thursday's fixture.
Koo Ja-Cheol vs. Axel Witsel
Captain Koo Ja-cheol scored one of their two goals in their second-round loss against Algeria, but showed glimpses of his undoubted ability in the South Korean midfield.
A pity that his next opponent will be Zenit Saint Petersburg's imposing and domineering midfield enforcer, Axel Witsel, who has enjoyed a fine World Cup campaign thus far.
Koo will need to rely on his finesse, technique and vision if he is to get past Witsel, who has been a revelation in his defensive midfield role for Wilmots.
If it's a kick-and-rush game that Hong decides to play on Thursday, Witsel will be rubbing his hands in anticipation.
Son Heung-Min vs. Vincent Kompany
Vincent Kompany may be captain for both Manchester City and his national side, but in Son Heung-min he will find an interesting and potentially tricky challenge on his hands on Thursday.
Son was arguably South Korea's standout player in their second-round defeat to Algeria, having completed nine take-ons during the match, the most by any player in a single match at the World Cup finals so far.
His movement cutting in from a more left-sided position to support the hapless Park Chu-young was a threat to the Algerian defence, and his goal showed the predatory instincts that he's displayed in the Bundesliga for the past few seasons.
Against a shaky Belgian defence and an incoherent Belgian side overall, South Korea still stand a chance, and Son will be pivotal to their hopes.