Asian Cup 2019: Son Heung-min and Wu Lei in the spotlight for South Korea v China

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Two of the Far East’s biggest powers will meet at Al Nayhan Stadium on Wednesday – but both will be saving their full force for the knockout rounds.

Expect much-changed sides from both South Korea and China, with squad management taking a priority ahead of a potential three further matches before the Asian Cup‘s Abu Dhabi finale on February 1.

Indeed, two of the biggest stories could be sitting in the stands …

Prodigal Son returns

South Korea coach Paulo Bento will have been wincing for every knock and tumble Son Heung-min has taken in the Premier League over the last month.

Don’t let their six points out of six in Group C fool you, though. Son is needed, and badly.

The Taegeuk Warriors mustered 16 attempts against the Philippines and a further 19 in their clash with Kyrgyzstan, but have just two 1-0 wins to show for it.

The main culprit is Hwang Ui-jo, who despite scoring the goal that downed the Philippines, has taken nine more shots than any other player in the Korean squad (13).

Meanwhile, Son has just put the finishing touches on a run with Tottenham that has seen him rack up nine goals in his last dozen games.

Bento, however, insisted he is controlling the urge to expect too much from Son too soon, given his first full training session only game on the eve of this match.

“He had a second training session with the team later (on Tuesday) and we will see how he fares before deciding,” said Bento, who may be without key winger Lee Jae-sung for the round of 16 due to a foot injury. “For that matter, any changes that we make to the team will not be because we are resting players but it will be for our strategy.

“Of course we know how many matches he has played the last (few) months. We also know that he is a very important player for our team.”

So if South Korea deliver another uninspiring display in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday without Son, just remember that arguably the tournament’s best player will be waiting in the wings.

Hurt under the collar

The pictures circulating in the Chinese media after victory over Kyrgyzstan did not look pretty for Wu Lei. His collarbone was in a position that you wouldn’t describe as natural, but last year’s Chinese Super League top goal-scorer has proceeded to grit his teeth and get on with it.

That pluck showed up in the subsequent fixture with the Philippines, providing two delicious strikes in the 3-0 win.

Marcello Lippi will rest his star forward and it shouldn’t be a huge blow – whoever loses faces a beatable Thailand – but unfortunately no amount of time is likely to fully heal the 27-year-old.

Shanghai newspaper Jiefang Daily has reported that surgery will ultimately be required but, as for the Asian Cup, Lippi is planning on his star forward being around for the duration.

“I saw the news that Wu Lei was to have surgery in China, but the truth is he will stay with us and he can play in our next games,” said the legendary former Juventus and Italy coach. “Our medical team have good communication with the medical team of (Wu’s club) Shanghai SIPG, and we know that Wu is getting better.

“We already know that if we finish second, we will play Thailand. If we win the group, we have to wait to see who our opponents will be. It doesn’t matter to us as whoever we face will probably be of the same standard as Thailand.”

Much like Son and South Korea, China’s hopes rest on the injured collarbone of a man who has scored seven goals in his last 13 internationals. We may see what they lack without him.

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