Wow, wow, wow.
Forget round of 16 for a second. Forget our form for a second. Forget even our questionable call ups and our clueless manager for just. one. second.
Korea Republic. Corea del sur. 대한민국 secured a historic 2-0 victory against #1 ranked, World Cup holding, fussball gods Germany, whose line-up possessed Toni Kroos, Thomas Mueller, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Mesut Oezil, Marco Reus, and a bunch of other household names that Bayern Munich could only dream of having in its side.
Unfortunately for Germany, they did not possess the saint. The gloved god. The great wall, Jo Hyun-woo – who not only kept Korea in the tournament till the very end, but also confirmed Mexico’s advancement into the round of sixteen.
Cho Hyun-Woo's performance summed up in one photo: head and shoulders above the rest. pic.twitter.com/9EknAxrehy
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 27, 2018
The game started predictably so. With Germany needing a win and Korea needing a miracle to qualify, it was Germany who started with all the possession and impetus to break the deadlock.
But like our performance against Sweden, Germany’s forward play was far from penetrative. Our back 4 was disciplined and up to the task, and without a certain center back pairing, we didn’t invite pressure, nor get caught in behind or give away possession, although Jung Woo-young did give a moment’s scare early in the half.
It was ugly; no doubt. Without a proper game plan besides “contain and pray on the break,” there was more of the same persistent fouling seen in Korea’s game versus Mexico in effort to break up play – Lee Jae Sung’s yellow card early in the half all but showing for it.
Yet, despite the pressure and the odds stacked against the Taegeuk Warriors, they came out with a couple dangerous plays of their own. With a free kick given off a high boot from Khedira, Jung Woo-young ended up with the responsibility of taking the set-piece after a quick huddle—the team achingly conscientious of the fact that this may perhaps be one of the best chances that they get all game.
Some probably had wishful flashbacks of Jung Woo-young’s knuckleball screamer that even Ronaldo would’ve been envious of back when Korea faced Japan in the EAFF tournament.
For once, positive recall regarding this side was nearly rewarded.
Jung Woo-young connected brilliantly; his shot was hit with plenty of pace, despite being straight at Neuer, and had just enough dip on it for the keeper to fumble. Son was quick to pounce on the rebound, but not quick enough as Neuer quickly swatted the loose ball away. Arguably the most dangerous chance of the game despite Korea’s utter lack of possession.
Despite that, another opportunity arrived; less than ten minutes later, Lee Yong actually put a dangerous cross into the German box, which was headed away, but pounced on by Son Heung-min, his shot zipping over the crossbar.
Those opportunities were enough; despite our side’s questionable quality, we grew into the match and did not falter as Germany dominated possession, opting to spread the ball from wing to wing to create space between the lines of our compact side.
They nearly got something out of it too. A couple of dangerous plays forced Korea’s back line into action; Reus’ shot at the top of the box after finding space between our midfield and defense was called for a handball after Yun Young-sun’s heroic block bounced off his arm, and San Cho was once again called to action, coming up big against Hummels’ scuffed a shot after a defensive scramble.
But the teams didn’t quite go into the half with one strictly defending, one strictly attacking; just before half-time, Korea gave the Germans a scare as they worked the ball from the back, and a beautiful cross field ball managed to make its way to Son Heung-min, ending with a tangle between Korea’s ace and Khedira in Germany’s box. No call.
If there was any play to end the half on, it was this one, and it summed up the game pretty well; Germany were bossing possession and creating a number of chances while Korea were disciplined in the back, posing some threat when moving forward. Despite the deadlock, the game was promising a goal. Or maybe even two.
It started with more of the same, especially with Korea’s ability to threaten. Jung Woo-young nicked the ball off the Germans just a minute into the second half and got a shot away, which was comfortably handled by Neuer.
A throwaway piece of play, all things being considered, but it continued to instill a belief that as long as Korea grew into the match, perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think of the impossible.
And it certainly wasn’t; Jo Hyun-woo yet again made another massive save, this time a short-range header from Goretzka, requiring a firm palm away from Korea’s new #1 as he dived to his right. Germany’s clearest chance by far, and to see yet another chance denied by the greater goalkeeper on the pitch, it was tempting at this point not to believe even for the most skeptical supporters.
An injury from Koo Ja-cheol forced Korea to use its first substitution, and Hwang Hee-chan came on as a like for like change. But it was Moon Seon-min, of all people, who created the best chances for Korea during the phase of play where Korea dominated most. A great combination of passes including Hong Chul and Lee Jae-Sung had Korea’s most promising domestic talent return the ball to Moon Seon-min, who found space in Germany’s box, but was quickly stuffed before he could tee up his shot not once, but twice. Although the second time it added the special sight of Moon sending a German defender for a bratwurst.
We officially grew into the match; or had, rather, until Ju Se-jong was subbed in for Moon Seon-min literally moments after our decent forward spell. That stifled our attacking prowess as Korea re-adjusted its shape to take into account a more defensive oriented change, but we didn’t seem to be bothered as Jo Hyun-woo made yet another stop from a bullet Gomez header – straight at Jo, to be fair, but no spills or shots batted away. Another indicator of a top-quality goalkeeper.
With ten minutes left to go, and an eye on the other game where Mexico were now 3 goals down against Sweden, Germany were aware that all they would need was a goal at this point to go through.
Bodies were being pushed forward, and play almost seemed sectioned off with German priority obviously focused on the top of Korea’s box. But whenever Korea did receive the ball, it almost seemed like a futsal match; 3 on 3 for the Koreans moving forward. Son Heung-min and Lee Jae-sung led forward play with whoever would bring the ball into the German half, and Korea nearly had something to show for it too when Lee Jae-sung found Son Heung-min, who’s shot characteristically had plenty of pace, yet went achingly wide.
But it was a corner into stoppage time that broke the deadlock. Son Heung-min whipped in a poor delivery, bouncing before reaching the first man, and Jang Hyun-soo, who had been lively in the 2nd half, was first to it, flicking it across the box. There was a scramble as Kroos poked it conveniently towards Kim Young-gwon, and the Korean centreback, who had been an absolute hero in this game just as he had been against Mexico as well as Sweden, welcomed the ball, taking a touch before knocking it past Neuer, who could not stop it from going into the back of the net.
Absolute delirium, but stifled before settling; the goal was denied for an understandable call – Kim Young-gwon in an offsides position, but as Korea desperately told the ref to check VAR, a closer look proved that ball received by Kim Young-gwon came off Toni Kroos. The goal stood. Korea was leading.
Think about that. Korea was leading. With four minutes left to play, in a must-win match for both the Germans and the Koreans for any chance of round of 16 play, Korea scored. Despite Shin’s tactical ineptitude, Korea scored. Despite the poor preparation and questionable squad call-ups coming into this tournament, Korea scored. Despite the fact that we were currently up against the World Cup holders, a squad littered with talent, ranked #1, and tournament freaking favorites, Korea were leading against Germany, one-nil, with four more minutes left to play.
But it got even better; with Germany throwing all but the kitchen sink at Korea, including a run from Neuer from his box into Korea’s half, the confirmation that Germany would not be advancing at the expense of Mexico came in the 96th minute as Ju Se-jong nicked Neuer off the ball, turned sweetly and hoofed it forward.
Son Heung-min was the furthest player up, and after a sprint which felt like an eternity, slid his left boot across the ball, and rolled it into the empty German net before it could roll out of bounds.
Euphoria; against all odds, Korea were leading—no—Korea had beaten current World Champions Germany with not just one goal, but two – enough to qualify out of their group had Mexico beaten Sweden in the other group clash.
They had done the impossible; in classic Korean fashion, when our backs are against the wall, when the odds are stacked against us, when all signs indicate an unceremonious crash and burn that would break a new record of consecutive losses in a world cup for Korea, we came up against heavy tournament favorites, and put in a clinical display of defensive resiliency. And won.
We’re out of the tournament, yes. But best believe we did our part. A slapdash squad missing key personnel, along with our captain no less, in this final match, Korea came out with a result that means so much more than a win. It means we have talent. It means we still got that Tuhon. It means that, despite the dumpster fire mess that has been the Korean National Team due to our Football Association’s ineptitude and corporate culture favoritism, we can still rise against the odds, still get a result, and still show the world what we’re capable of. Never count us out.
Perhaps Group F was the Group of Death after all.