DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Coach Paulo Bento acknowledged there are hazards for last season's Premier League joint top scorer Son Heung-min when he takes the field wearing a mask in the Group H opener against Uruguay in the World Cup.
Son hasn't played since fracturing his left eye socket on Nov. 2 in a Champions League match playing for his English club Tottenham in a collision with Marseille player Chancel Mbemba.
“He knows, and we know, that after this injury we cannot rule out any risks,” Bento said.
Son and his teammates face a physical Uruguay team that blends the experience of veteran forwards Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani — both appearing at their fourth World Cup — with a supporting cast of promising young players led by Federico Valverde of Real Madrid.
Bento called training sessions with Son “normal" but said the test comes when the match begins.
“We will see tomorrow how it will be," Bento said. “Our hope is that he will feel comfortable to the greatest extent possible. And we’ll use the best strategy during the game so he can feel at ease.”
Son has scored 35 goals in 104 internationals but there have to be worries about how effective he can be — and what the dangers are of playing with the mask, which he has worn in training since arriving in Qatar.
Uruguay coach Diego Alonso was asked by a South Korea reporter if he would try to take advantage of Son's injury.
“The only advantage we will (have) here is with our football," Alonso replied. "We’ll try to be better than them and to use our players — and not to use any other difficulties in the other team.”
Uruguay is facing a generational change on the field with Suarez and Cavani likely at their last World Cup. The youth is personified by 24-year-old Valverde, who is scoring goals and adding assists.
Uruguay players are also famous for their dedication to the national team, which Alonso praised.
“With a lot of hope and a lot of desire,” Alonso said to describe his team. “The national team is the priority. This is what distinguishes the Uruguayans; they are always focused on the national team.”
Both Suarez and Cavani signed with new teams to ensure they got regular playing minutes ahead of the World Cup. Cavani moved from Manchester United to Valencia while Suarez returned to his boyhood club Nacional after a successful spell at Atletico Madrid.
Suarez has scored seven World Cup goals. That is one short of the national record by Oscar Miguez from the 1950 winning World Cup team.
There's change on the bench, too. Oscar Tabarez is gone and replaced by Alonso, who has little experience at this level. Tabarez led Uruguay at three World Cups but stepped away earlier this year after a series of poor results. It was Tabarez that took the team to the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Suarez is infamous for several biting incidents on the field. In a match in the 2018 World Cup in Brazil, he bit Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder. The referee didn't see the incident, but Suarez was later suspended from all football-related activity for four months, slapped with a nine-match international ban and given a big fine.
It was Suarez's second controversial World Cup moment. In the last minute of extra time at the 2010 quarterfinal match against Ghana, Suarez was sent off after he used his hands to keep out Dominic Adiyiah’s goal-bound header. Asamoah Gyan hit the bar on the ensuing penalty, and Suárez was shown celebrating on the sideline.
Ghana went on to lose the penalty shootout, thereby failing to become Africa’s first semifinalist as the continent staged its first World Cup.
Brazil and Serbia round out Group H, with many viewing Brazil as the tournament favorite.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup
Stephen Wade, The Associated Press