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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 18 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's quest for their third straight Asian Games gold medal in men's football will start Tuesday against Kuwait in China.
The first Group E match between the countries will kick off at Jinhua Sports Centre Stadium in Jinhua, south of the main host city of Hangzhou, at 7:30 p.m. local time, or 8:30 p.m. in Seoul.
The opening ceremony of the Asian Games is Saturday, but preliminary action in some sports will begin a few days before that.
Coached by Hwang Sun-hong, South Korea's under-24 team will later play Thailand on Thursday and Bahrain on Sunday. Both of those matches will also start at 7:30 p.m. in Jinhua.
There are six groups of four at the Asian Games. The top two nations from each group will be joined by the four best third-place teams in the knockout stage.
No country has ever won three consecutive gold medals in Asiad men's football.
This match will be the first official Asian Games action for any South Korean team or athlete this year, the magnitude of which was not lost on Hwang.
"We absolutely want to win the first match and we must win it," Hwang said in a media scrum before a training session Monday night in Jinhua. "I know people are putting some pressure on our team for playing the very first match for the country. But I understand our position. We want to play well and bring some positive energy to the rest of the delegation."
For at least the first two group matches, South Korea will be without Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) midfielder Lee Kang-in, widely regarded as the team's most skilled and creative player.
Since the Asian Games aren't part of the FIFA international match window, clubs aren't required to release their players. PSG agreed to send Lee to the Asian Games, but under one condition: he will play in the club's UEFA Champions League group stage match on Tuesday in Paris and then travel to China the following day.
Given the time difference and travel distance, Lee won't arrive in Jinhua until Thursday. This will rule him out for the Kuwait match and will likely keep him on the sidelines for the second contest, too.
Lee, who has been sidelined since late August with a left quadriceps injury, missed PSG's Ligue 1 match on Friday, but is expected to return for the Champions League.
Before departing for China on Saturday, Hwang said he will not rush Lee into action because the player may not be in optimal match shape after missing weeks of action. Hwang also said he would have to talk with Lee to determine his best position on the field.
Lee was named to the Asian Games team in July but he has yet to train with his teammates.
Hwang said Monday that he expects Lee to arrive in China by around 6 p.m. Thursday. In the meantime, he will keep a close tab on the player this week.
"I will watch the Champions League match, for sure," said Hwang, who will have to be up at 3 a.m. Wednesday Chinese time for the kickoff between PSG and Borussia Dortmund. "I hope he's 100 percent healthy."
Men's football at the Asian Games is typically restricted to players under the age of 23, with teams permitted to carry up to three overage players. The age limit was raised to 24 for Hangzhou, as the competition was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For South Korea, Paik Seung-ho of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, 26, is one of the three overage players, joined by his Jeonbuk teammate Park Jin-seop and Ulsan Hyundai FC defender Seol Young-woo. Paik will be South Korea's captain.
Up front, VfB Stuttgart attacker Jeong Woo-yeong will try to breathe some life into what has at times been a listless offense. Cho Young-wook of Gimcheon Sangmu FC, currently second in K League 2 scoring with 13 goals, will also be leaned on for some offensive spark.
Hwang said Kuwait may be a bit rough around the edges but "they have a direct style of play and they compete with a lot of energy."
"They can be physical out there, and the key for us is to keep our composure," Hwang said. "It will be a difficult match, but at the end of 90 minutes, I believe we will be standing as the winning team."