SAO PAULO, Brazil - South Korean football coach Hong Myung-bo said Wednesday that his squad's balance was thanks to forward Park Chu-young, whose contentious inclusion on the World Cup squad had yet to pay off with a goal.
Hong defended the Arsenal striker-turned-free agent's performance in Korea's 1-1 draw with Russia and 4-2 loss to Algeria, saying the team was not able to create chances for him. In each match Park went scoreless, fumbled passes and was brought off before the hour mark, which Hong said was strategic.
Park's second-half substitute in the Russia match, Sangju Sangmu forward Lee Keun-ho, scored Korea's lone goal in the draw.
Korean media questioned whether Park should start Korea's final first-round match against group leaders Belgium in Sao Paulo on Thursday.
"It's important to have him for the overall balance of our team," Hong said at a pre-match press conference in Sao Paulo.
Park was positioned as lead striker in Korea's debut match against Russia on June 17, and then brought back behind midfielder Son Heung-min against Algeria on Sunday.
"In the first match (with Russia) I don't think that he played that poorly. In the second match (with Algeria) I think we didn't make enough chances (for him)," Hong said.
He said it was the weak defence that ultimately led to the defeat against Algeria.
Park was wildly popular in Korea after he led the country's U20 team to its record-breaking 11th title at the Asian Football Confederation Youth Championship 2004, and was named the AFC's Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2010. He scored six goals in 2011 in the country's bid for a ticket to Brazil and then another in a warm-up friendly in March, when the squad beat fellow World Cup participant Greece 2-0.
But Hong was criticised in Korea for including Park on the World Cup roster in May after vowing that he would only bring on players who were active in their respective clubs. Park was signed on to top-tier English club Arsenal in 2011 but had played sparingly and went on loan to Spanish club Celta Vigo in 2012-13 and then to second-tier English club Watford this January. He was released last month.
Hong had then defended his choice, saying that he "couldn't find another attacker to replace Park." Park leads the national team with 24 goals and ties in caps with Lee Keun-ho at 65.
Reserve forward Kim Sin-wook had said after the Russia match that Park was a "hero" among the team, after he "sacrificed himself" to wear down Russia physically so that Lee Keun-ho could score the goal in the 68th minute.
"I think that Park Chu-young in the middle, he is the one who creates a balance in the overall team," Hong said. "So in that way he has fulfilled his role, but I think that we haven't made enough chances for him to score a goal."
South Korea and Belgium kick off at 5 p.m. Thursday (5 a.m. Korea time), while Group H rivals Russia and Algeria face off in Curitiba.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent