nat'l football team-defense

SEOUL/PAJU, March 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea may not have the service of veteran defensive back Kwak Tae-hwi for an upcoming World Cup qualifier against Qatar, national team officials said Thursday, as the country may be forced to juggle its lineup once again.

Officials said Kwak, also the national team captain, underwent a test on Monday that revealed torn quadriceps. The 31-year-old hasn't taken part in recent team practices as the 23-man squad prepares to host Qatar next Tuesday in Seoul in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Kwak's injury is the latest blow to the team that has already replaced a defensive back, a midfielder and a backup goalkeeper this week alone.

Kwak, who plays for Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia, has been the pillar of South Korean defense for the past two rounds of the World Cup qualification. He is the only defensive back to have played in all four games in the final qualification round so far. Kwak, who has represented South Korea in 29 matches, is also known for his nose for the goal, particularly on set pieces.

On Monday this week, South Korea replaced Kim Chang-soo, a defender based in Japan, with Choi Chul-soon, who has appeared in just two international games.

The rest of the defense corps is also green. Jung In-hwan, seen as the likely candidate to team up with Kwak as a central defender, has just four international matches under his belt. Kim Ki-hee has played just once while Jang Hyun-soo is the only defender without any international experience.

Head coach Choi Kang-hee, though, said the players will more than make up for their inexperience with their talent.

"Since Kwak Tae-hwi may not be able to play, we need to find a new combination at central defense," he said. "Players we have as alternatives lack experience, but they're all capable players. We have plenty of time to practice (before facing Qatar)."

On the sidelines of the team's practice at the National Football Center in Paju, north of Seoul, Jung In-hwan said he and his fellow defenders will try to pick up the slack if Kwak can't play Tuesday.

"Honestly, I am worried (about not having Kwak in the lineup)," Jung said. "But he's been encouraging us and giving us advice on how to play against Qatar. They tend to sit back and wait for counterattack opportunities and we will try to contain that."

Jung said although he and his young teammates lack international pedigree, they will try to compensate for it with their chemistry.

"Cohesion among defenders will be very important and we'll get better as we talk to each other more and share our thoughts," he said. "Coach Choi has gone out of his way to teach us about positioning and other aspects of defense."

South Korea is ranked second in Group A after four matches, with four matches remaining. It must finish in the top two among five nations in the group to automatically qualify for its eighth straight World Cup. A third-place finish in the group will relegate South Korea to a playoff.

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