A shameful and miserable World Cup Qualifier for Korea today as Uli Stielike, fielding a puzzling roster in which he installed a subpar Lee Jeong-Hyup to lead the attack, failed to score against 86th ranked China and lost their first WCQ match against China – as far as the Tavern statistician can remember. If China were to someday become a world footballing power whilst Korea gradually diminishes from the world stage, this game might be long remembered as just that turning point.
Son Heung-min had to sit out due to accumulation of yellow cards in WCQ competition. Korea enjoyed long spells of possession only to get stymied by a resolute Chinese defense and an even better goalkeeper. Against the run of form, a 34th minute corner headed in by Yu Dabao was the difference maker. Yu was unmarked, and with a tight angle, the ball glanced off his head, nutmegged Lee Jeong-Hyup which acted as a screen – the ball quickly slipped by keeper Sun Tae-Kwon across the line.
Korea had their chances to score. Ji Dong-Won drove in (on 2 occasions) 20 yard shots that just went over the crossbar. Later on, he had a few gilted edge headers on target that forced keeper Zeng to make some good saves. Kim Jin-Su and Lee Yong were able to run down their respective sides and Koo Ja-Cheol and Nam Tae-Hee were probing to find a way through in the final third – however Lee Jeong-Hyup didn’t contribute and was nowhere to be found in the attack. Ki got in on the action as well but team Korea just couldn’t string together that final killer ball.
Enter the Wookie and exit Lee Jeong-Hyup at half time. Kim Shin-Wook was plan B in effect – sooner than later. Right away the Chinese defenders read Korea’s terribly transparent game plan to simply go direct. It was a throwback to the worst habits of the Choi Kang-hee era – no build up – just a hail mary to the Wookie in hopes he can either hold up the ball or redirect it to the other attacking midfielders. The Wookie didn’t do himself any favors, either doing poorly on his first touch or fouling to get an edge and thus frequently he lost the momentum. It was appalling football to witness, and with each successful intercepted long ball only strengthened the confidence within the Chinese team and the throngs of support, extra angry amidst the political drama in the backdrop surrounding the THAAD missile arrangements between the US and South Korea. Ki Sung-Yeung however was able to do well dribbling forward into space, the defense perhaps surprised that the Swansea man didn’t opt for crossing to the Wookie – his shot was nearly perfect, on target in the far left corner -but Zeng Chen dove just in time to parry the shot away. Nam Tae-Hee cross found Ji open in the middle, the Augsburg man whipped his head to redirect it into the bottom corner, but Zeng was there to knock it out.
Stielike sensed that his plan B was going all wrong, but by the time he put on Hwang Hee-Chan, it was deep into the 2nd half and all but too late. Even in the late stages, fullbacks Kim Jin-Su and Lee Yong did well to escape their mark on the flanks, however they squandered their chance to do damage as they still (probably Stielike’s mandate) tried to opt for the Wookie header option – but completely surrounded AND lacking in form – that plan fizzled quite spectacularly. Heo Young-Joon, the Jeonnam Dragons midfielder came on for his first cap replacing Nam Tae-hee. That substitution was puzzling – Kim Bo-Kyung could’ve been a better option. Was this Stielike’s way of accepting a historic loss to China? Regardless, time ran out and it was game over. A stunning result. History made, and not in the way Korea would have anticipated.
This match will go down as one of Korea’s most humiliating losses. Not that any game against China should be taken for granted but Lippi’s team was, on paper, beatable and should have been one in the win column for Korea. One can pontificate on the larger significance of this moment as narratives are being formed; the possible turning point in which Korea, given it’s own citizen’s apathy over it’s own domestic professional league and the resulting appalling financial status that pays it’s players some of the poorest wages in Asia (despite it’s dominance over the years in the Asian Champions League). Others can point to the political and financial capital invested in China’s own football development, installed in it’s school curriculum – and the money that’s now being spent that’s attracting the attention of the footballing world at large. More topically, Stielike’s selections, team management and appalling tactics has to be called into account. Prior to the game, many had raised eyebrows over his choice to lead the attack. Sure, Son was unavailable, but why not Hwang Hee-Chan? That player fits with the other attacking midfielders he has and plays to their strengths. Then there’s the Wookie. Sometimes the plan to go super direct works – but it’s a gamble and not a good one at that -especially if defenders can read that option and Korea decides to hoof it up somewhere in the vicinity of Kim as frequently as they did today. Whether or not Uli and sacking him (a la Jurgen Klinsman for the US late in their hexagonal CONCACAF WCQ stage) is something to discuss will be tricky given the lack of time left to qualify for Russia 2018.
But given this turmoil, as the saying goes, the other side of the coin is opportunity. Regrouping, renewal, and resetting the stage for Korea to regain their footing. Perhaps not qualifying would do a world of good for the Korean program, as painful and humiliating as it might be. An emerging competitive footballing nation in China is not the worst thing to happen to Korea. It must force Korea not to be complacent with their national program -and not simply take for granted all their internal football systems, from youth development to the sustainability of the domestic professional leagues. Korea has been a dominant footballing presence in Asia. For it to remain as one going forward, it has to adapt to the reality of China breathing down it’s neck.
In the meantime, the Syria WCQ awaits next Tuesday in Seoul. Son will be back. Korea will be looking to rebound – and we will be watching.
UPDATE: Stielike apologized to Korean supporters.
S. Korea coach apologizes to fans over shocking defeat to China in World Cup qualification https://t.co/DKRXN1bPJv
— Yonhap News Agency (@YonhapNews) March 23, 2017
Not sure if it’s the entirety of Uli’s comments, but if he didn’t acknowledge his role (selection of LJH and the Wookie + long ball tactics with Wookie Plan B) that would be a shocking omission.
AND Somehow Korea still maintains 2nd in the WCQ group behind Iran –Uzbekistan missed their chance to leapfrog Korea with a loss today.