AL-AIN • While the arrival of Son Heung-min has installed South Korea as favourites for the Asian Cup, coach Paulo Bento may be forced to wrap their star in cotton wool as "he has played a lot of games during the last months".
The Tottenham forward arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday to join the Taeguk Warriors for the rest of the tournament after an arrangement was struck with the Premier League side for him to be excused for their first two games.
A video posted on the Instagram page of the Asian Football Confederation showed Son signing autographs upon arriving from London.
With South Korea having already reached the last 16, fans may not get a chance to see the 26-year-old in tomorrow's Group C dead rubber against China as the team need to take stock of his fitness levels.
Son, who has eight goals and seven assists in Spurs' last 12 league games, has played nearly 1,000 minutes in 16 games for his club this season, on top of his appearances at last year's World Cup and their title-winning Asian Games run.
Bento told reporters: "Of course, a player with the quality that Son has... can help the team. But we need to wait until the game against China or the knockout phase.
"We will talk and then we are going to take the best decisions for the team."
Despite South Korea labouring to successive 1-0 group-stage wins and failing to turn their domination into goals, the Portuguese hinted he would resist throwing Son into the fray, insisting that South Korea were "not going to change our way of playing".
He said: "What we are going to do is improve our collective game, try to attack better than we have played until now."
While Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has lamented the absence of Son, who could miss up to five games if his country reaches the Cup final on Feb 1, the player is also "very sorry" for being away at a crucial point of their season.
He added: "I miss already in September (due to the Jakarta Games). I feel sorry for my teammates, the fans and the coaching staff. It's difficult. Sometimes, it's a bit sad but it is also important for my country.
"I hope I can keep my form for the national team and when I come back here again as well."
However, South Koreans are hoping he will instead take out his frustrations on their opponents, with Son expected to fire Bento's men to glory and end their Asian Cup hurt. They have finished runners-up four times, the latest at the previous edition in Australia.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, DPA, REUTERS
South Korea v China: Singtel TV Ch116 & StarHub Ch210, tomorrow, 9.20pm