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Young midfielder building case for nat'l team selection with strong La Liga showing

10:01 September 02, 2022

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- Three matches into the new season in the top Spanish league, RCD Mallorca's South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in is building a compelling case for a long-awaited return to the national team.

Lee, 21, has a goal and an assist so far this season. But beyond those numbers, the precocious midfielder has displayed the kind of flashy skills that had earned him a callup to the senior national team in September 2019 as an 18-year-old.

In this EPA photo, Lee Kang-in of RCD Mallorca (R) celebrates after scoring against Rayo Vallecano during the clubs' La Liga match at Estadio de Vallecas in Madrid on Aug. 27, 2022. (Yonhap)

Lee has been nominated for La Liga's Player of the Month for August, alongside FC Barcelona star Robert Lewandowski and Real Madrid stalwart Vinicius Jr., among others. Though Lee does not have the gaudy stats of other candidates, he has clearly earned his spot with some creative plays.

"I feel that I am well both physically and mentally," he recently told Mallorca's official website. "But, in the end, the most important thing is for the team to get points and for me to add to the team to help more. I can give much more than now."

Mallorca coach Javier Aguirre recently spoke about how Lee is "much more liberated." The tactician has deployed Lee at different positions this season, taking him out of his comfort zone as an attacking midfielder.

Lee once got a start on the right wing and has even played as a forward. Lee isn't a speedster by any means, but his creativity, vision and passing skills suit him well for any offensive role.

"I told him he has to be important for the team," Aguirre told the team website, referring to Lee. "I dare say he is one of the most talented players in the squad."

In this file photo from March 25, 2021, Lee Kang-in of South Korea takes a corner during the men's friendly football match against Japan at Nissan Stadium in Yokohama, Japan. (Yonhap)

As for the national team, South Korea head coach Paulo Bento may not share the same feelings about Lee. The talent is obvious, but Bento, whenever he was pressed about leaving Lee off his squad, said the attacking midfield position is already deep with versatile veterans who could take on different responsibilities.

Bento called up Lee for three matches in the fall of 2019 and for two more in November 2020 before selecting him just once in March 2021. Lee hasn't played for the senior national side since, though he did play at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.

Bento has shown a penchant for selecting two-way midfielders who can be responsible on the defensive end. The question begs, though: when a player is as offensively skilled as Lee, do you really need him to play defense as much? Or would you be better off having him focus on his strengths as an attacking player?

South Korea will host Costa Rica on Sept. 23 and Cameroon on Sept. 27 in pre-World Cup tuneups. They are also hoping to schedule one last match at home in November before departing for Qatar for the big tournament, though Europe-based internationals likely won't be made available for that occasion. The two September matches, then, are essentially the last opportunity for Bento to test his squad at full strength.

In this EPA file photo from Aug. 20, 2022, Lee Kang-in of RCD Mallorca reacts to a play against Real Betis during the clubs' La Liga match at Visit Mallorca Estadi in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. (Yonhap)

Bento has been quite conservative when it comes to squad selection. Over his four years at the helm, he has not deviated from the core of the team. Even the odd new faces here and there never received consistent playing opportunities. And with the World Cup about two months away, Bento is unlikely to experiment by inserting Lee into the starting lineup, based on what essentially amounts to a handful of preseason and regular season matches over the past month or so.

One potential path for Lee to make the final World Cup squad opened up in June, when FIFA approved the expansion of squads from 23 players to 26 players.

Lee may not be starter material, but as a sub, he is certainly capable of swinging the momentum of a match in South Korea's a favor with one play. Even Bento would be tempted to have that option on his bench.

Lee put on quite a show at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, winning the Golden Boot as the tournament MVP at age 18 despite South Korea's loss to Ukraine in the final. Excited South Korean football fans were quick to anoint him as the next big thing.

However, his career hasn't quite taken off the way many observers had envisioned. If anything, Lee appeared to have stalled during the 2021-22 season, his first with Mallorca.

But Lee may just be living proof that development for young footballers is not always linear.

In this EPA photo, Lee Kang-in of RCD Mallorca (R) scores past Pathe Ciss of Rayo Vallecano during the clubs' La Liga match at Estadio de Vallecas in Madrid on Aug. 27, 2022. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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