JI DONG-WON will have no time for a breather once his Olympic journey is over.
Unlike his fellow Sunderland internationals, who were given extra leave after their close-season efforts, the striker will head straight back to Wearside once the South Korean team’s involvement in London 2012 comes to an end.
The 21-year-old has missed out on the Black Cats’ entire pre-season work as he focused on helping his country’s drive for an Olympic medal in the football and Martin O’Neill wants him back in the fold immediately.
Unlike Stuart Pearce’s GB team, South Korea are continuing to progress in the Olympic competition, the Asians set to play against tournament favourites Brazil in a semi-final at Old Trafford tonight.
And the Sunderland manager hopes the young forward will at least continue to get game time this evening.
The Black Cats boss allowed six Sunderland players – John O’Shea, James McClean, Keiren Westwood, Seb Larsson, Stephane Sessegnon and Ahmed Elmohamady – to start pre-season training later than the rest of the squad due to their involvement in either the European Championships or World Cup qualifiers during the close-season.
But with Ji not due to return to Wearside until Monday – five days before the Premier League kicks-off on August 18 – Sunderland need to quickly assess and work on his match fitness and sharpness.
O’Neill admitted: “I don’t think we can afford to give Ji any time off.
“It is going to be a matter of him coming straight back into training with us.
“I’m hoping that when he comes back from the tournament, he will be ready to go.
“He did have some time off in the summer between the end of our season and the start of his Olympic preparations with Korea, at least.
“I spoke to his agent when we were out in Korea for the Peace Cup last month and, obviously, he is very keen for him to get more playing time this season, so we’ll see what develops.”
Ji scored for South Korea against Pearce’s Team GB in the quarter-finals, helping his side gain a 1-1 draw before knocking out the host nation on penalties.
That earned them the difficult challenge of Brazil tonight, with the prospect of a final against either Mexico and Japan, who were due to meet in the other semi-final at tea-time today.
The losers of the two semis will play each other for the bronze medal at the Millennium Stadium on Friday, while the final takes place at Wembley on Saturday.
That means that win or lose tonight, Ji will miss Sunderland’s friendlies against Derby County tomorrow night and Leicester City at the weekend.
Apart from Ji, the only players yet to figure in Sunderland’s pre-season games are Sessegnon and Elmohamady who returned to training with the rest of the club’s internationals last week.
But while O’Shea, McClean, Westwood and Larsson all travelled to Scandinavia to play Swedish champions Helsingborgs on Saturday, the Africans did not make the trip due to visa issues.
Both are expected to be involved in tomorrow’s game against Derby County at Pride Park and also at Leicester on Saturday.
Irish midfielder David Meyler, who missed the game in Sweden because of a knock, is expected to come back into the reckoning for the remaining friendlies, while Wes Brown – who injured his knee in the Peace Cup trip to South Korea – has an outside chance of being involved against Leicester.