DOHA, Qatar — On Tuesday evening, Jürgen Klinsmann and Roberto Mancini will occupy opposing dugouts at the Education City Stadium as South Korea and Saudi Arabia clash in the Asian Cup’s round of 16.
As players and coaches, they’ve reached some of the highest peaks in the game. Now as coaches they lead nations that are multiple former champions in the Asian Cup, globally recognised as two of the continent’s best, and widely tipped as contenders for the title this time around.
Yet one will go home before the quarterfinals in an ignominious end to a tournament that failed to live up to expectations, and the scrutiny that marked the beginning of their respective tenures will reach new levels.
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Of the two, it’s Klinsmann who has more to lose — both because of the elevated expectations surrounding his South Korea side and the disdain that the Taeguk Warriors fans increasingly hold for him. Before the tournament he told skeptical local media to book their hotels through to the final, something he reiterated during this week, but increasingly it feels like nobody believes him.
There was a furious reaction when he was seen smiling following a last-gasp equaliser from Malaysia in the final game of the group stage that sealed a 3-3 draw and condemned Korea to a second-place finish — accusations quickly flying that he was happy to drop the points because it meant that Korea wouldn’t face old rivals Japan in the knockouts.
“My smile was because I saw it coming. It was a game where we had nearly 85% possession, 20 corner kicks, many chances and did not score another goal,” Klinsmann explained on Monday. “Usually in football, this is what happens in the very last minute if you don’t finish off the game; you get punished.”
But even if Japan have been avoided, Saudi Arabia are no easy opponent; a nation that have won this tournament three times and who defeated eventual champions Argentina in their opening game of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The stadium will be dominated by their fans on Tuesday, with head coach Mancini declaring that this means his side will essentially have a 12th player.
In theory, the FIFA rankings (South Korea, 23rd, Saudi Arabia 56th) and perceived talent levels between the two sides favour Klinsmann. The German coach has been entrusted with a golden generation in Doha, a unit bearing more than enough firepower to end a 64-year continental drought that sits uneasily with the Taegeuk Warriors’ reputation as one of Asia’s best. Elimination at the hands of the Green Falcons would break a streak that has seen his adopted nation stand among the last eight teams at the Asian Cup since 1996.
“I don’t fear anybody. No fear, but a lot of respect for every opponent,” Klinsmann said. “Roberto is doing a fantastic job, it’s a step-by-step process that he had to go through. It’s a new adventure for him and a new adventure for me being in Korea. You can now see [Mancini’s] handwriting on the team after 10 games.”
The question surrounding Korea was never if they had the talent, but if a side featuring a genuine global superstar in Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-Min, supplemented by standouts such as Bayern Munich’s Kim Min-Jae, Paris Saint-Germain’s Lee Kang-In and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Hwang Hee-Chan could be put in a position to bring this fearsome collection of talent to bear.
And there are plenty of doubters. Former United States boss Klinsmann had courted significant controversy and criticism since he was appointed just under a year ago, and while much of it was pointed towards off-field matters such as his external commitments and not basing himself in Korea as he said he would, there were persistent concerns surrounding his tactics and approach. These bore out across a series of adverse results early in his tenure — a winless run of several months that ended with a 1-0 win over a pre-Mancini Saudi Arabia at St James’ Park — and are now returning like an unwelcome cloud.
No team had more of the ball in the group stage than South Korea — averaging 72.7% possession and with a competition-leading 6.6 passes per defensive action. And no team had more shots on target. But for all this statistical dominance, they have struggled to score from open play — managing to do so just once against Malaysia, despite 82% possession — haven’t kept a clean sheet yet and are statistically the equal-worst defensive unit to progress to the knockouts, with six goals conceded. Indeed, the 2-2 draw against Jordan in the group stage only arrived when defender Yazan Al-Arab inadvertently turned the ball into his net in the 91st minute.
It’s against this backdrop that Klinsmann must arrest this slide against an old foe, albeit on a new setting. For while his time in Asian football only began with his appointment to the Korea job, the German’s history with Mancini stretches back decades.
It was the opening game of Euro 1988 at the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf where the two first met on the international stage, West Germany opening the tournament against Italy in what, up to now, was the only time the pair had faced off in a competitive international fixture. Both men started up front that day, with Mancini opening the scoring in a 1-1 draw. They would also have several meetings at club level over the years and play other international friendlies against each other, even coming close to becoming teammates in 1997 when Klinsmann joined Sampdoria briefly in 1997, just after Mancini left to follow Sven-Göran Eriksson to Lazio.
Both 59 years old, Klinsmann is four months older than Mancini but their paths have yet to cross in the dugout until now.
“We played against each other many years ago in Italy,” said Mancini. “He was a very good striker and now he is a very good manager. He has a lot of experience with many national teams and clubs. He knows football very well.”
Saudi Arabia’s preparation won’t change ahead of South Korea clash
Saudi coach Roberto Mancini says his team’s preparation will remain the same ahead of their Asia Cup match with South Korea.
After leaving his post with the Italy national team, Mancini arrived in the Gulf last August as the full-time replacement for Hervé Renard, who departed to lead France’s women. With European, Premier League, and Serie A titles to his name, the recruitment of the former Manchester City boss was the latest in the long line of Saudi chequebook-driven statements of intent.
But while Klinsmann was handed the reins of a strong pool of players, Mancini has needed a period of squad rejuvenation in his Saudi side, seeking to blend youth with experience. He courted controversy on the eve of the Asian Cup when he left out former captain Salman Al-Faraj, as well as goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi and defender Sultan Al-Ghannam, amid claims the trio had opted out — which they vehemently denied. Former skipper Yasser Al-Qahtani also labelled him a “coward.”
An incredible 13 of the 26 players he brought with him to this Asian Cup had 10 or fewer international caps to their name. This included 16-year-old Talal Haji, who set a new record for the youngest-ever Asian Cup player when he came on as a substitute in his nation’s 0-0 draw with Thailand in their final group game.
Saudi Arabia went one better than Korea by progressing as group winners but they’ve also been shaky: a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over Oman in their first game was only secured by a 97th-minute winner from Al Hilal defender Ali Al-Bulayhi, while a plodding 2-0 win over the Kyrgyz Republic saw them struggle to create chances despite playing most of the game with a one-player advantage and ending the game against nine men.
With the country all in on its sporting and geopolitical ambition to dominate global football, an early exit — especially under a coach of the reputation of Mancini — would not be ideal.
“South Korea is a very good team,” he said on Monday. “If they conceded six goals in the group stage, it doesn’t change their strengths. They have very good players, they score lots of goals. But if they’re conceding we know that if we attack we have a chance to score.
“In this tournament, we have improved a lot as a team. It will be very important to play as a team and not alone. Alone, it is difficult to stop their striker and their attackers because they are very good players. But if we play as a team we can do this.”