By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL, April 30 (Reuters) - South Korea will be playing at their eighth consecutive World Cup finals in June but must improve on a dire qualification campaign to have any chance of escaping a tough group in Brazil.
Unlike fierce rivals Japan, they spluttered through qualifying and it ended with the departure of coach Choi Kang-hee amid concerns the team were heading for embarrassment in South America.
A 1-0 home defeat by Iran in the final match meant South Korea grabbed the last automatic berth on goal difference. Choi subsequently stepped aside and former skipper Hong Myung-bo took over.
Tasked with shoring up a suspect defence and sharpening a one-dimensional attack, Hong tinkered with personnel and formations and won once in his first seven games.
However, a stoic display in a 2-0 defeat by Brazil in October was followed by an impressive 3-1 win over Mali and a superb 2-1 victory over Switzerland.
As good as the result was against the Swiss, who went through their qualifying campaign unbeaten, the manner in which South Korea controlled possession and opened up their opponents at will suggested Hong had found the right formula.
Unlucky to lose 2-1 to World Cup Group H rivals Russia in a friendly four days later, the Koreans slumped to defeats against Mexico and United States as Hong gave fringe players a chance.
His team then looked good again in a 2-0 win over Greece in Athens with what looked like their strongest XI.
The Koreans are likely to have to beat Algeria and get a positive result against Russia if they are to stand a chance of reaching the knockout stage in Brazil, with top-quality group rivals Belgium highly fancied to go a long way.
It will be the third time the Koreans will meet Belgium at the World Cup after losing 2-0 in 1990 and drawing 1-1 in 1998.
They will be facing Russia and Algeria for the first time at the finals.
While a return to the semi-finals, a feat they achieved in 2002 as co-hosts, is almost certainly beyond them, the Koreans stand a decent chance of reaching the knockout stages.
They have a fine record against African sides, beating Togo in 2006 and drawing with Nigeria four years later. The Russia game is expected to be the key fixture for both sides.
Much will depend on how a young Korean team cope with the pressure of a World Cup. The majority of the squad are in their mid-20s and playing in a finals for the first time. (Editing by Tony Jimenez and Mike Collett)