If there’s a running theme for the 2019 edition of the Asian Cup, it’s that the giant 4 of Asian football, Iran, Japan, Australia and Korea are not in top form. That’s been certainly true today as Korea couldn’t get the job done in regulation time and needed 30 extra minutes to finally dispatch a spirited Bahrain side, narrowly averting tournament disaster. However disaster not averted yet – Korea goes the extra distance, having to play 120 minutes and now facing only 2 days to rest/recover before they get back out to clash with either Iraq or Qatar in the Quarterfinals. But even as all the usual Asian elite powers have struggled, all have still managed to advance; it was Korea’s turn to squirm with an inelegant performance that just managed to eke out a result. For the first time in the tournament, Korea conceded a goal, having failed to put Bahrain to the sword with multiple chances earlier to score. The script was playing out similar to the narrow victories in group stage against Philippines and Krygyzstan; however this time, Korea’s inability to be ruthless in front of opposition goal cost them dearly – allowing Bahrain to get back into the match with a poorly conceded goal to Mohamed Romaihi with only 13 minutes left in regulation time. On the balance of things, Korea still deserved the win, with goals by Hwang Hee-chan and Kim Jin-su in extra time to send Korea into the Quarterfinals. However, several behind the scenes factors contributed to a generally poor Korea performance. We’ll break it down but first the starting XI
Same 4-2-3-1 with Hong Chul and Lee Yong returning to their fullback positions. Korea starts brightly, but with Bahrain’s ultra compact defense, Korea found it difficult to thread the needle in the final third – limited in even their usual high shot production numbers. Bahrain however managed to get on their offensive front foot faster, registering several shots before Korea got their first on target.
Lee Chung-yong, who had been very proficient in the group stage, looked flat and gave away a dangerous backpass that nearly led to a successful Bahrain counter. The Blue Dragon, as the Tavern broke the news last weekend, flew out unexpectedly to Korea to attend his sister’s wedding. Analysts will wonder, might other rotational options been better than a jetlagged Chungy? The half was ending fast – Korea’s ineptitude in the final third looked like it would play out to a frustrating 0:0 scoreline for the break, but Son, using a bit of skillful footwork, left his mark in the dust and drove forward down the middle with acres of space. He quickly found Lee Yong as Bahrain scrambled to reformat the backline. Lee Yong one touch pass to Hwang Ui-jo right in front of goal – Ui-jo’s backheel diverted shot was unable to get past Shubbar, but the rebound came right to Hwang Hee-chan. The Hamburg man calmly sent it into the opposite corner of the net – Goal!
Korea 1:0 Bahrain
Korea’s 2nd half starts brightly but fatigue starts to set in. Passes weren’t as crisp. Hong Chul and Lee Yong once again delivered miserably placed crosses and the offense looked as predictable as it was ponderous.
Bahrain were ready to take advantage of the slim Korea lead, having already tested Kim Seung-gyu having to bail out Korea with a super save. Lee Chung-yong, looking fatigued and not on his best game, subs out for Ju Se-jong in the 68th minute.
Then in the 77th minute, disaster struck. Kim Min-jae, who has been relatively solid at CB, was caught out of position – kind of a odd play as a Bahrain long distance shot then takes a fortunate deflection to Mahdi Al Humaidan, his short range shot gets blocked by Hong Chul but rebound fell kindly to Romaihi, who did not miss from close range. Korea concedes for the first time.
Korea 1:1 Bahrain
Bento adjusts, takes out Hwang Hee-chan for Ji Dong-won and with Hwang Im-beom – who had been tirelessly spot on for the entire match – looked out of gas and Bento, facing up to the rotational problems of his own making – finally sent out Lee Seung-woo for Im-beom in the final minute of regulation time. Korea pushed for the game winner and nearly got it after a defensive miscue allowed the rampaging Hwang Ui-jo to find himself one on one with the keeper -but this happens:
Korea went into extra time looking woefully close to the edge, looking nervy, particularly with some rust showing on Lee Seung-woo who was eager to get into the tournament. However, Lee’s heavy touches betrayed his energetic dribbling.
Bento played one more card from his hand, using the 4th extra time sub to haul off Hong Chul -who continued his erratic off target crossing and installed Kim Jin-su to provide more clarity as the LB / left wing. Indeed the move would pay off in spades: after several fruitless crosses, this time in the 107th minute, Lee Yong delivered a beautiful cross that went over the heads of the backline and was going straight for Kim Jin-su – he leaned forward, took aim and rocketed a header past the scrambled defense and the helpless arms of Shubbar.
Korea 2:1 Bahrain
Son and company kept up the attack, Son teeing it up for Lee Seung-woo and later for Ju Se-jong- the latter hit the post – and in the scramble, a penalty shout went unheeded as the ref didn’t get a good angle to see the clear handball on replay. A few heart attack moments came and went for Korea. They saw out the result to the end of the 2nd overtime.
Post Game Notes:
-We observed in the last group game against China the gamble Bento took with leaving Son in the game for nearly all 90 minutes. With Son having already played 90 against Manchester United only 3 day previous – the risk that Son would not be at his best for the long haul of the tournament was evident today. He was still a positive force undoubtedly, instrumental in the first goal and in the buildup to the extra time goal, but some heavy touches and wayward balls lost were indicative of the fatigue that captain Son’s is under. From what we know on countless Spurs matches and from the Asian Games tournament format, Son is not at his best form in those compressed circumstances when he’s not fresh.
-The fullbacks of Lee Yong and Hong Chul is less than ideal, and that’s putting it kindly. Certainly Lee Yong was instrumental in both goals – and deserves plaudits accordingly. However, if the Tavern statistician was still employed – he would probably find a poor ratio of successful crosses in this particular match. While the verdict is mixed for Lee, its more decisively negative for Hong Chul and his wayward crossing from the left. It makes sense that the game turned around when Bento, finally at the end of his patience with Hong Chul in overtime, finally subbed in Kim Jin-su – who was providing more of an effective attack down the left.
-Lee Chung-yong shouldn’t necessarily get stick for going to his sister’s wedding….I’m not going to weigh in on that so much as Bento had a chance to start someone against Bahrain who wasn’t jet lagged. I’m going to suggest something controversial at this point: that Lee Seung-woo, who had a rough intro with his own heavy and rusty touches, nevertheless should have started instead and that Korea would have been more effective today had that happened. The Asian Games provides some anecdotal evidence to that claim – he’s not as effective as a sub (save for the final match vs Japan with his game winning shot in overtime) but more so when he can start and get into the groove of the match. To be able to start a tempo can be important to the chemical flow of his game. With a late introduction today, he looked nervy in getting into the match, with a desperately needed goal hanging over the proceeding – his heavy touches were that of someone who hasn’t played a single minute of the match. That may sound like an apologist for Lee but if you look back to the totality of his 30+ minutes on the pitch, he grew into the game and settled down, carried the ball and linked up more efficiently with his compatriots. Had he gotten a more composed shot in extra time, the narrative (or the internet) would have certainly exploded. The Korean media may (or may not be) drumming up some sort of Bento/Lee Seung-woo induced conflict, but aside from that unnecessary distraction, the potential is still there for Lee Seung-woo to contribute, be that creative attacking outlet that Korea needs and help out his weary side. Bento’s substitution is a late acknowledgement of that fact: Bento is running out of options by not having rotated properly during the group stage. 2 days rest between now and the quarterfinals adds to the pressure the Korea camp is now under.
In the backdrop to rotational woes is the injury list. No Lee Jae-sung (out for perhaps another week) and Ki Sung-yeung had to leave for Newcastle early -both misdiagnosed improperly by the KFA team doctor in the last several days -who we now find wasn’t a full time sports medicine specialist at all! The yet unnamed team physician was a volunteer – for years the KFA went with a thoracic surgeon (translation: chest surgeon) – who has zero qualifications as a sports doc. Steve Han twittered earlier that the KFA has only had a full time doctor ONCE in its history:
It’s a shocking admission and since then, the thoracic surgeon/non sports medicine doc flew back to Korea – with the odd excuse that his contract expired midway through the tournament. As Steve Han wondered outloud: why did the KFA elect to bring him to the UAE for the Asian Cup? The question now is: will the KFA now do the proper thing and get a legit sports doc now?
-On the positive side: Jung Woo-young looked decent today – better precision with his passing (than usual). Hwang Im-beom looking very Ki like today, and more importantly, seems just a tad faster than his mentor. Composed under pressure – hardly put a bad foot forward (though his shooting could be a bit more clinical). We saw a better version of Hwang Hee-chan -who has gotten clobbered by netizens for his missed opportunities in group stage. For sure, that happened today as well, but his performance wasn’t just summed up by getting onto Ui-jo’s rebound; his passing and dribbling looked sharper. In short, he looked more confident – particularly after scoring his first goal of the tournament.
And just in: Korea will face Qatar in the Quarter final – they get a 1:0 result against Iraq – and they did it in 90 minutes.
Korea v Qatar Friday January 25th kickoff 8am US EST / Saturday January 26th kickoff midnight Korea time
EXTRA TIME ADDED:
According to Yonhap’s recap, the stats provided gives further context to the fullback’s crossing futility: “South Korea delivered a total of 30 crosses before the match entered extra time, but only one turned out to be successful.”
With Lee Seung-woo and Ji Dong-won’s entrance late in the game, their inclusion improved Korea’s attack in the center: “South Korea’s attacking directions were concentrated on flanks before extra time. While South Korea had only 27.3 percent of ball movement in the center area of attacking third in the second half, this rate jumped to 31.5 percent in the first half of extra time.”
One more interesting stat from Yonhap: “In extra time, South Korea had five crosses and two were successful, a big improvement on accuracy compared to what was done in regulation time.”