The final World Cup Qualifier of this calendar year started and ended disappointingly for Korea as they left Beirut with a share of the points.
We lined up with, more or less, our best eleven; our back five a familiar set-up with Jung Woo-young marshaling the back line. Nam Tae-hee got the uncommon start despite the white-hot form of Hwang Hee-chan at Salzburg, and Lee Jae-sung started on the right, Hwang Ui-jo our starting striker, Son Heung-min on the left.
Maybe it was because the game was being played in an empty stadium, but the first half didn’t exactly inspire. We played compactly, opting to run play down the middle despite the shortcomings of our midfield — uncharacteristic for Korea.
But perhaps not so surprising considering our personnel; Nam Tae-hee has always been a periphery option, never a starter for our national side. Hwang In-beom’s regression upon his move to the MLS was once again on display, and Lee Jae-sung continued to drift inside more to get involved, a natural tendency of his, essentially leaving Lee Yong to roam on the left despite his poor crossing and forward playing leaving much to be desired — typical from him.
That’s not to say that there weren’t any chances; Lee Jae-sung popped the first of a couple chances from the top of Lebanon’s box with a decent strike zipping just wide of the post less than 10 minutes in. Son Heung-min also set up the overlapping Hwang In-beom in the 21′, who skied his chance as he opted to hit a far post curler from inside the 18 yard box.
But it would be Hwang Ui-jo with the best chance of the first half; after finding a long ball, Ui-jo opted to take his shot off the bounce with a defender oncoming, and the best he could do was hit the Lebanese goalkeeper on the chest.
Beyond that, the first half ended insipidly at 0–0. Korea may have ended the half with a majority of chances and possession, but that wasn’t to say Lebanon were out of the game, and if anything, the second half continued to prove that to be true.
We started with an immediate substitution, Hwang Hee-chan coming in for Hwang In-beom. This would just be the beginning of Bento’s top-heavy changes throughout the second half. Lee Jae-sung would tuck in centrally as he had been doing all first half, Hwang Hee-chan on the right.
With that change, Korea were a bit more dynamic at the start of the second half. Son Heung-min got more and more involved as he seemed to found space on the left, and a chance made off a 1–2 pass was skied wide from the left in the 49′.
But it wasn’t just Korea who looked to grow into the game; there were spells where Lebanon looked to play with a higher line to utilize what brief possession they had, and Korea’s lack of intensity meant they got to see more time on the ball. Some decent plays in Korea’s box resulted in a couple shots away early in the second half for Lebanon, luckily nothing too concerning for Kim Seung-gyu to handle.
One of the better chances for us came right off the break from a fortunate clearance finding Hwang Hee-chan on a 3v2 situation. Carrying the ball from the right side of pitch to the top of Lebanon’s box, he found Hwang Ui-jo to his left once the Lebanese defense began to close in on him, and a bit too much pace on the ball meant a tight angle for Ui-jo. His shot would be parried by the Lebanese goalkeeper, who did well to not only stop the shot, but also sweep into the rebound as Son Heung-min looked to beat him to it.
We were looking to break the deadlock, and credit to Bento for opting for more positive changes early in the second half, except it didn’t make much sense; in the 63rd minute, Kim Shin-wook came in for the invisible Nam Tae-hee despite our fullbacks being incapable throughout the entire game to provide something offensively, be it a cross or a deft pass from out wide. In fact, our wide play in general was sorely missing.
The best chance of the game would come just minutes later. Winning a free kick in Lebanon’s half, Son Heung-min whipped in a great ball to find Hwang Ui-jo inside the 6 yard box. His contested header would hit the post and bounce out. Not Ui-jo’s day, although longtime supporters of our national side would find this to be relatively typical of our lead striker.
Beyond that, the game was sluggish; both teams looked to make the best of their half-chances. Kim Min-jae put in a characteristically authoritative performance in the back, nullifying any real opportunity for Lebanon, and our midfield bereft of creativity meant that there would be nothing for our front trident of Hwang Ui-jo, Hwang Hee-chan, and Son Heung-min to really take advantage of. With Bento’s final roll of the dice, Lee Jae-sung came off for Lee Kang-in, essentially making Kang-in our sole creator in the center of the pitch for a 4-2-4 shape with 10 minutes left to play.
Overall, it was a lackluster performance, Hwang Hee-chan and Kim Min-jae the brightest of the bunch. Son Heung-min seemed to have more of a fixed role compared to his last couple outings for Korea, but poor finishing from our captain would mean that the game started and ended on a boring note, 0–0 a fair result.
There was one final chance coming deep into a lengthy 6 mins of stoppage time with a free kick outside the box, but nothing came from it. Agonizing, as Lee Kang-in stood over the ball; Jung Woo-young opted to take the kick, which went straight into the Lebanese wall.
With two wins and two draws, Korea is very much so in control of its own destiny and despite the result, it’d be unnecessary to stress over the performance. World Cup Qualifying is always a grind, and Lebanon has been a bit of a thorn in our side — their shock 1–0 win in Beirut back in 2011 always a humble memory if one were to ever consider them an easy opponent.
If anything, it’s Bento’s stubborn nature that merits frustration. The continual use of Lee Yong is borderline braindead considering he has no future for Korea at the ripe, ripe age of 32, and the call-ups of Kim Shin-wook, Nam Tae-hee, Ju Se-jong, Na Sang-ho, and Park Joo-ho don’t exactly inspire confidence in our future, nor is it indicative of any forward planning. We have three years left until 2022 (hosted in the winter-time), and we seem to continue to ride the shortlist of personnel that would have been more appropriate to consider for the most recent World Cup. It’s been a year and a half since.
Again, perhaps Bento knows something that the public doesn’t, so here’s hoping there’s some change. Find solace in the fact that three of our remaining four games in this group will be at home. And it’ll be interesting to see how we perform against Brazil in Abu-Dhabi in five days time.