Today’s Special: Son Heung-Min’s return to form will come as a relief for South Korea ahead of the World Cup

Tottenham Hotspur manager Antonio Conte may have allowed himself a smile or two when Son Heung-Min, who has yet to hit the mark this season, came on from the bench at the weekend for a lightning-fast 13-minute hat-trick to score against Leicester City. And while Conte’s smile could be mistaken for a smirk, there’s certainly someone who breathed a sigh of relief.

That someone is South Korea coach Paulo Bento.

With the World Cup just two months away, Bento’s biggest concern must have been that Son was a shadow of the player he was last season. And South Korea need him at their best, if not better, having been drawn into a very difficult group in Qatar.

In Group H they meet star-studded Portugal led by Cristiano Ronaldo, South American powerhouse Uruguay with the likes of Luis Suarez, Edison Cavani and 23-year-old Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez – and tricky African side Ghana.

Getting out of that group will be a Herculean task and Bento will take comfort from Son’s performance against Leicester.

The fight

Son, who won the Golden Boot last season while scoring 23 goals (shared with Mohamed Salah), has failed to score in the first six games this season. That led to Conte making a very difficult decision to bench him for their home game against Leicester. With the game tied at 3-2 and Leicester trying to take control of midfield, Conte turned to Son.

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Son was looking to prove himself after his first bench break and showed he’s ready for a fight by becoming the first Tottenham player to score a hat-trick off the bench in the Premier League this season.

Tottenham's son Heung-min Tottenham’s son Heung-min, center, in action during the Champions League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Olympique de Marseille at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England, Wednesday September 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)

His first goal was spectacular, to say the least. His right foot rolled into the top corner from 25 yards, then his left foot shot from 20 yards hit the bottom corner and it was rounded off by a deflected shot after the video assistant referee overturned an offside decision.

Sohn himself admitted he was “really frustrated” after being benched by Conte.

“I was very frustrated too,” Son told Sky Sports after the game. “I can do a lot better than I used to. I was disappointed, the team did really well but I was disappointed with my performance. My degree was bad. I was also a bit unlucky with an own goal, two offside goals and a crossbar. I knew goals were coming and I wasn’t worried.”

However, it disappeared when he scored that 25-yarder. “I couldn’t believe it (when I scored). All the frustration and whatever disappointment and negative feelings I had just went away. I couldn’t move, so I stood still. It made me really happy,” he told BBC Sport.

“Football is crazy sometimes. Sometimes the ball didn’t want to go in and three times (he had today). It changes everything. I learned so much during this difficult time. I have to work hard every time to get the chance.”

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Too much on his plate?

Son has been omnipresent for the Tottenham and South Korea team, so much so that he has probably played and traveled more than any other professional footballer, at least in the last four years.

While his club has strict English and European football schedules, he has had to travel extensively when playing for his country. Starting with the 2018 World Cup in Russia, then the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, which his team won, thereby exempting him from military service, followed by the 2019 Asian Championship in the United Arab Emirates. Then there were the qualifiers for Qatar, which were played across Asia

Son Heung-min Tottenham Hotspur Spurs English Premier League Mohamed Salah Liverpool Eric Dier Indian Express News Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, left, celebrates after scoring against Arsenal (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Not to forget that he carries out a wide range of commercial activities – his popularity and large following mean that all top brands want to reach out to him.

Despite failing to make the goalscoring list, people were wondering if his busy schedule was taking too much of a toll on him.

Upcoming friendlies

When asked about Son’s form last week, Bento downplayed any concerns. “I’m not worried and I feel the same as if he will score a lot of goals,” said Bento, adding: “As always, I have full confidence in him. I have no intention of speaking to him about it.”

And Bento will also be grateful that the hat-trick means he is unlikely to be asked questions about Son as his side prepare to play Costa Rica on Friday and Cameroon four days later.

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The question plaguing Bento going into last weekend was if Son hadn’t found his form before November, who he could count on to see his team finish in the top two of the group to take them to the last 16 create. That would mean they would need a dominant striker.

In this September 29, 2016 file photo, then-Olympiakos coach Paulo Bento holds the ball during the Europa League Group B soccer match between Olympiakos and APOEL at Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in the port of Piraeus, near Athens South Korea coach Paulo Bento. (AP file)

That coat would go to Hwang Ui-jo – recently loaned from Bordeaux to Olympiacos. With 23 goals in Ligue 1 in the last two years and an international tally of 16 goals from 47 caps, he has been decent but doubts remain as to whether he can single-handedly win the game for his country.

24-year-old Cho Gue-sung is considered Hwang’s second-in-command, although he plies his trade in South Korea’s second-tier K League 2. Despite being a consistent goalscorer, Cho has yet to prove himself.

There is always the attacker of the wolves, Hwang Hee-chan. The 26-year-old has shown his attacking ability but he needs to start more often if he wants to play in Qatar.

The fact is, South Korea can’t really afford to resort to plan B. They need Son. If he is not injured, he will definitely be there against Uruguay on November 24th. And as he showed, it only takes 13 minutes to change the narrative.

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