After much hand wringing, nervousness and anticipation, Korea and Russia concluded the opening Group H World Cup with a flawed but occasionally brilliant 1-1 draw. In the end, despite ESPN announcers dismissing Korea and heavily favoring Russia, the Taeguk Warriors came out in much better form and shape then their tune up matches hinted at, defying expectations of a poor opening performance. Both nations ended in a 1:1 draw, with a bid of luck both good and bad going both ways. Briefly revisiting the notion of lower expectations after Korea’s 2-0 Tunisia loss and an even greater 4-0 loss to Ghana to prepare for the World Cup, the Guardian’s Andy Hunter wrote this in his post match report:
“It was an opening (from Korea) that suggested their troubled preparations for the World Cup were part of an elaborate ploy…”
Conspiracy theory, possibly yes, but some conspiracy theories are more fun than others. I’ll return to the Guardian, but to better serve as a reference point as Korea prepares for their next group opponent in Algeria, here’s what I saw in the Russia v Korea that might prove useful. Korea started somewhat brightly (thus settling my nerves a bit). The Tavern has witnessed over the past year in the run up to Brazil 2 sides of Korea: one being of general self destruction and another showing a capable flowing passing side, albeit with some trouble finishing (stemming from the Choi Kang-hee era). Watching the better technique, improved footwork, and coherent passing, and just as important – relatively competent defending and a clean sheet on set pieces – this could be perceived as a confidence builder of sorts – only it was live at their opening World Cup match.
- While he did not have had a shot on goal and others have commented on how invisible he was, re-watching the game, Park Chu-Young actually contributed to Korea’s possession game and created a number of opportunities for Korea to score. Again to Andy Hunter’s Guardian report: “…Collecting another intelligent header from the left, this time from Park Chu-young, Son cut inside Russia’s captain, Vasili Berezutski, but skied horribly wide from the edge of the area.” Earlier, Park nearly latched onto a Lee Chung-Yong pass as he was cutting into the box. While I sound contrarian on the subject of Park, it’s clear Park is not completely in form and this game may provide some with more ammunition against him and Hong’s decision to utilize him. By this one metric, he as a striker wasn’t able to get himself into a position to score. He had no shots on goal. However if the goal he scored against Greece in March is any indication, his ability to suddenly strike could still be Hong Myong-bo’s potential hidden ace up his sleeve.
- The excitement and the weight of expectation was more than visible on Son Heung-Min – the Bayer Leverkusen star was in such a hurry to get Korea on the scoreline, he botched several attempts on goal, most glaringly in the first half. Still, you could almost forgive the 21 year old as he had an decent game overall, providing pace and brilliant movement to get into great positions to score. But he didn’t. His first shot on goal was a particularly interesting one. Longtime Son watchers recognized a signature move that he used to deadly effect during his Hamburg SV days, the one where he rounded past the defense to the the right corner of the box, splitting Borussia Dortmund’s defense while letting fly a magnificent screamer into the net. Only this time his early shot went high over the net. Still, you get the sense that it’s only a matter of time before he scores in the tournament.
- Ki is taking the corner kicks. He’s good at delivering the CK’s, but wouldn’t his height be of better use near the box on set pieces? I don’t want to open a pandora’s box, let’s move on…
- I wanted to yell ole ole ole several times, especially during Han Kook-Young’s impeccably timed slide challenges. Ball possession regained several times thanks to Han. Yun Suk-Young also did his part, picking off an errant Russian pass in the 52nd minute to start a nice counter attack on his side. He had several nice runs, including one outside the area in the 60th minute, only to be mowed down by a Russian defender. Unbelievably, no yellow card was issued.
- The return of Ki Sung-Yeung and Koo Ja-Cheol. Crucial players for the KNT, both were unconvincing in the aforementioned tune up losses – perhaps due to recovering from late season injuries. With Koo named as captain, his leadership dynamism (circa 2012 Summer Olympics) was needed more than ever. Thankfully Koo was sharp overall- though with a touch of rust – but his 2 shots on goal, one that was unlucky enough not to go in on a deflection in the first half provided lift to their offense. His tenacious argumentative self however was more restrained – tempered if you will by the sobering responsibilities of being team captain. Meanwhile his partner deeper in the midfield, Ki Sung-Yeung was back to his usual excellent self, directing traffic and distributing calmly to pry open Russian space. He clocked in with a 94% pass accuracy rate, and his own shot in the 50th minute was powerful enough to rebound off of Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev, foreshadowing events to come…
- 2nd half, they were working the right side for a while. First Son switched sides and hovered on the right wing, followed by Ki working and tending his administration there as well. They apparently found something there to exploit, but no goals. The Koreans kept the pressure on the Russians and pinned them in their own half. After Ki was brought down outside the area in the 56th minute, Kim Young-Gwon surprisingly took the freekick – it was well taken and Akinfeev continued to have trouble, the ball rebounding off him which Han Kook-Young nearly took advantage of before Akinfeev knocked it away at the last moment. No goals yet until…
- …The introduction of Lee Keun-ho. The one time Asian Player of the Year before reporting for military duty was a surprise substitution for Park Chu-Young. Who would’ve believed he would come in to score the first goal to break the deadlock and even more so in the way it happened? Such an interesting comparison, Russian manager Fabio Capello 2014 and Fabio Capello, England manager 2010. I mention this because much like Rob Green and his howler conceded to the Americans then, Igor Akinfeev will now go down in World Cup history for conceding an even more embarrassing howler. Lee’s long distance shot wasn’t anything special. It came as Lee was finding space in the middle, and after watching Akinfeev mishandle several shots during the 2nd half, he decided to have a go at it. The routine shot went straight towards the Russian keeper, but somehow he couldn’t get a grip on it -it bounced off his hands and spun behind him and into the net. Goal #1 for Korea. While his name is now up on lights for scoring Korea’s lone goal, I thought Lee had a mixed performance, with an errant backheel pass to Lee Chung-Yong missing the mark and some poor crossing not his best representation of the night. Still, his goal put Korea on track for all 3 points until…
- Russia equalized less than 5 minutes later. After Lee’s goal, 2 substitutions, one Russian, one Korean made the difference. The goal was conceded after Hong Jeong-Ho was taken out on a stretcher for an injury (not sure what it stemmed from – we’ll try to find out). Substitute Hwang Seok-ho was unable to adequately clear from the box, an unlucky pingpong bounce of the ball later and Russian substitute Kerzhakov equalized.
- Jae will have more to say on the matter but overall, there’s positives coming out of this draw. There’s more spring in their step. While Korea has to tinker further with their finishing, some of the puzzle pieces are falling into place with a framework in creating opportunities to score. With the next game on Sunday in Brazil [Monday in Korea], Korea can continue building on the things that worked in the game against Russia -keep working on ways to score, keep the defense as a (relatively) cohesive unit. Encouragingly, with Belgium needing a come from behind victory against Algeria, the group seems wide open. They are showing potential and you can see that confidence in themselves back again. The team I hoped would show up, well, seems like 85% of it did show up. That other team – the disaster prone kind – thankfully didn’t. However, missing out on all 3 points, Korea must win against Algeria to advance past the group.
- Incidentally, the Korean support showing up at the stadium in Cuiabá had a 2:1 numerical advantage over Russian support.
I’m linking up again to the Guardian’s match report – it was a pretty accurate and thorough depiction of the game. 1 more item concerning the support shown for Korea in Cuiabá, Andy Hunter observed that the Brazilians in attendance rooted overwhelmingly for the Taeguk Warriors. Maybe it had something to do with all their bullying of the Ukraine… In other parts of the world, this was the scene in Seoul when Lee scored:
Moving on…some Tavern goers may remember my last post regarding low expectations…check this out:
The power of low expectations…
Update: noonchi has added a few more Korea in World Cup related items including Jae Chee’s Tactics for Layman guide. I’ve got a piece there about magic+2002 and Korean Football Blog explains why Lee Chung-Yong is his favorite player to watch out for in Brazil. Also I did an interview with Southern California NPR correspondent Josie Huang. The piece aired yesterday right before the match. You can listen to it here. The Tavern will be creating a new page for all the outside media stuff we’re doing related to the World Cup later today…
last word : Fabio Capello is the highest paid international manager in the World Cup. He makes close to 11 times Hong Myong-Bo’s salary. If Russia doesn’t advance in the group, Putin might have to bear hug Capello into submission. Aside from that, his preparations for the game might be called into question. Capello acknowledged in an press conference before the game that he didn’t know any of the Korean players names, nor thought it was important to do so.
If Lee Keun-ho was so inclined to be all gangsta, he might have a conversation with Capello that goes like this… “Bet you know my name now, bi-yatch.”