In a match surrounded by a lot of nervousness and uncertainty in the days prior, Korea strolled to a very comfortable 2-0 win against China. Though the concerns about horror challenges and our players getting injured were more than justified, the ref was unbiased and created 0 controversy. The lack of VAR was also never an issue either.
There were whisperings before the game that we would start with a very strong lineup including Lee Kang In and try to get a few early goals to kill the game off early. Instead Hwang went for a A- team of sorts, rotating the entire front line from Park JY – Jeong WY Lee KI Um WS to Cho YW – Song MK Go YJ Ahn JJ. It’s clear that Hwang sun Hong has seen what we have seen – that no matter what lineup we field in this tournament, we would still win the whole thing. And he was right.
The only slight concern I had looking at this lineup was Park Kyu Hyeon. He is a promising player for us but has yet to impress on any NT setup. I did say in my Kyrgyzstan review that SYW – HJW is a much stronger FB pairing than Park and Choi Joon. Although it did make sense to put him though given his toughness and strong physique (probably the strongest of all four of our fullbacks).
Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when PKH put in a man of the match – esque performance against China. He not only shrugged off challenges easily but kept a cool head in the face of extreme Chinese aggression especially from their RW #20, who consistently leapt into late challenges and high tackles, eventually leading PKH to leave the field with a quads or hamstring injury (seemed minor as he walked off the field on his own). The way Park reacted to the two Chinese defenders getting all up in his face – by raising his hands up and removing himself from the situation – was truly exemplary. I think any one of our players would’ve done that (they wouldn’t be so dumb as to get into a fight in a winning situation and get carded) but still. Song Min Kyu I must also shout out for his ability to completely shrug off the Chinese players physicals challenges. I am starting to rate Park Kyu Hyeon much more as is the Korean media, with many articles praising his performance coming out today. This one from Naver called him the “scene stealer.”
Another player with a man of the match shout outside of Song Min Kyu and Park Kyu Hyeon is Hwang Jae Won. He is quickly becoming my favorite Korean fullback. He dribbled past numerous Chinese defenders effortlessly today (probably had more successful dribbles than anyone else on the pitch, though Song Min Kyu was also pretty close) and yes although this is a U23 tournament, I strongly believe that our senior NT starting FBs should be Hwang Jae Won on the right and Seol Young Woo on the left. Hwang was also on the receiving end of numerous studs up challenges but fortunately he was able to get up each time without getting injured (although I was screaming internally for HSH to sub him out). I am almost positive he will be rested against Uzbekistan, depending on how much HSH trusts Choi Joon.
The media, pundits, and us football fans alike were all worried about horror tackles and referee shenanigans. After all our women’s team got defeated by North Korea the day prior with the lack of VAR and very questionable refereeing to blame. Fortunately, this didn’t happen. From the start China set up very defensively. They made very poor challenges as they usually do but didn’t do much to threaten us at all. Within just 18 minutes Hong Hyeon Seok took advantage of poor GK positioning to score a direct free kick on the right edge of the box. And in 35 the GK failed to get his hands to a cross down the R flank by Cho Young Wook, allowing Song Min Kyu to score with ease. To his credit though the Chinese GK did make several saves in the first half to keep his team in the game.
It wasn’t until a poor back pass from Paik Seung Ho later in the match that China got their first shot on target … they fortunately hit the post. It was captain Paik’s second mistake of the tournament so far in two successive games. He has been extremely influential otherwise but a mistake like that against our next opponent Uzbekistan or the favorites to reach the final Japan could provide costly.
Early in the second we replaced the front line of Song Min Kyu, Go Young Joon (who was especially getting fouled left and right), and Ahn Jae Jun (all three of whom were playing very well) with an equally, if not even scarier front line of Jeong Woo Young Jr, Lee Kang In, and Um Won Sang. While Um Won Sang’s insane pace caused some problems for the Chinese defenders, the subs seemed more than content to just pass the ball around, preserve stamina, and kill the game.
This seemed to be Hwang Sun Hong’s strategy – score >1 goal early on, then pass the ball around slowly and kill the game. It worked as even after Paik’s blunder China would not threaten us. And incredulously, even while down, it took them 60-75 minutes to come alive and actually commit some men forward.. to no avail ultimately.
Lots of theories floating about why China didn’t go full horror tackle mode on us. Did they want to save face as this is an international stage not a friendly? Did they just lose all hope after losing their two best CBs, their DM, and resorting to playing their striker (#9) as a CB? Either way, we can be relieved that we came out of this without any serious injuries.
The next opponent is Uzbekistan. They’re a bit of a bogey team for us who always play well at the youth level. But it’s clear that this team is way too good for this tournament and that we could probably select a XI at random and still win. Of Uzbekistan Japan and China I was admittedly the most worried about China due to the possibility of shenanigans, but now that that hasn’t happened I am even more confident that we can pull off gold.