Uzbekistan were staring at the clock – 30 minutes to go in Seoul World Cup stadium to secure a historic first WCQ against Korea, who has managed to get the better of them for years. A horrendous defensive collapse of the highest order in the first half gifted the Uzbeks a goal and Uzbekistan reverted to 7 in the back to defend for their lives. Instead, Uli Stielike, who had been out managed by Uzbekistan’s boss Samvel Babayan, executed plan B and managed to claw back, equalizing with Nam Tae-hee heading in Park Joo-ho’s fabulous cross over the keeper. Stielike, on the razor’s edge of resigning with a negative result, found a way to celebrate his 62nd birthday with Koo Ja-Cheol dramatically finding the net with 5 minutes left in regulation time. A very messy victory to win all 3 points and keep them on track for World Cup Qualifying. We break it down and give the good, the bad and the ugly, plus a video recap to boot –stay with us after the jump…
For this crucial WCQ, Korea entered this high stakes game in 3rd place in Group A qualifying, 1 point behind 2nd place Uzbekistan. High Stakes is an understatement, the KFA all but flat out said Stielike and much of the KFA leadership would resign should there be a loss – and most likely if there was a draw.
Following a run of the mill lackluster win over Canada in a tuneup friendly 2-0, with Son, Ki, Lee Chung-Yong, Lee Jae-Sung all rested due to niggling injuries, there was the sense that Korea, even with a decent roster in the starting XI, would not be able to run on all cylinders.
Korea XI vs Uzbekistan pic.twitter.com/R0fEAd1UBt
— Jae (이재혁) (@ArmchairRegista) November 15, 2016
Korea’s 4-1-4-1 was notable for Lee Jeong-Hyeop once again up top. Would it work?
The game started brightly for Korea, enjoying the largess of ball possession, but not much to show for it, Uzbekistan finding ways to clog up the final third. Son looked lively driving towards goal, but wasn’t able to connect with his teammates and saw his shots blocked.
The very few times Uzbekistan were able to counter, they looked dangerous, and Korea’s defenses, for all that’s been bandied about the supposed improved defense since 2015, looked quite vulnerable. Stielike’s mandate to play out from the back and patiently find holes within Uzbekistan’s armour backfired. Midway through the half, Kim Ki-hee meekly headed a backpass to keeper Kim Seung-Gyu, a poor decision as Sergeev was lurking nearby and was about to pounce. Kim Seung-Gyu alert to the danger, in a panic swept out the ball, but didn’t get the height he wanted. The clearance went straight to Bikmaev, who launched a 30 yard shot with Kim way off the line. Kim Ki-hee could only watch as the ball landed in the net.
Korea 0 : 1 Uzbekistan
That gave the Uzbeks momentum as they absorbed the waves of Korean attacks without too much difficulty and again looked dangerous on the counter. Lee Jeong-Hyeop was lost up top, and the few poor touches he had on the ball reflected badly on Stielike’s faith in the ineffective Ulsan striker. But he wasn’t the only culprit, Ji had difficulty getting past the Uzbek leftback Denisov. Kim Chang-Su all but telecasted his crossing attempts and was contained. Halftime arrived and boos rained down from the half empty Seoul stadium. Within 45 minutes Stielike had to be thinking about packing his bags.
2nd half and Lee Jeong-Hyeop was still on the pitch. Korea pushed to find the equalizer and gradually began to cobble together some genuine scoring opportunities. Ki started to push forward rather than safe but sterile backpasses. Korea knocked at the door several times – and you could get the sense that an equalizer was around the corner. Ki Sung-Yeung’s laser vision found Son making a run and an excellent opportunity ensued:
54' Ooh! Son Heungmin made a run into the box and latched on to a longball – he can't get a shot away as the Uzbek RB tackles #KNT #WCQ2018
— Taeguk Warriors (@taeguk_warrior) November 15, 2016
Still no goal. Teeth chattering time with some crucial substitutions.
This from Korean Footballers Abroad via twitter in the 63rd minute:
Ji coming off who had been poor but Ji shoulda been up top or moved up top still over LJH https://t.co/OLemoCpGlL
— Korean Footballers (@KoreaFootAbroad) November 15, 2016
3 minutes later Kim Shin-Wook, the towering Wookie comes on for Lee Jeong-Hyeop.
Then… a moment of magic in the 67th minute. Lets see if we can decontruct: Lee Jae-Sung’s one touch mobility kickstarts the buildup – Son’s pass then finds Park Joo-Ho driving toward the box. His cross goes over the Wookie’s head, over a leaping and helpless Lobanov -the keeper can only watch as Nam Tae-Hee crashed the net and headed the ball in. Post analysis, you could say, the Uzbek defense was so concerned about the Wookie, the diversion of forces meant they forgot about Nam Tae-Hee.
Nam Taehee scores for Korea against Uzbekistan. pic.twitter.com/1I8pHqE7rf
— Jae (이재혁) (@ArmchairRegista) November 15, 2016
Korea 1: 1 Uzbekistan
Korea, emboldened and re-energized, keeps up the high octane attack but nothing to show for the bravado. The Wookie had a mouthwatering chance to find Son with an open net, but his wayward pass forced Son backwards, allowing Uzbek defenders to swarm and smoother Son’s opportunity. Enter Hong Chul for Park Joo-Ho at LB, who put in a great shift but seemed out of gas. Hong Chul has been known to cross, and he did not disappoint. With 5 minutes remaining in regulation, Korea staring at a not-as-embarrassing-but-still-embarrassing-draw, Hong found the towering Wookie on the top of the area. While the Wookie wasn’t adept at using his feet to link up with his teammates, Stielike was hoping he could redirect towards someone who could knock it in. That’s exactly what happened, and the training scenario worked out in real time as Koo Ja-Cheol was in perfect position for the redirect. With no time to spare as Uzbek defenders closed in, he reflexively one timed it into the left corner of the net: GOAL!
Koo Jacheol scores to put Korea ahead 2-1 against Uzbekistan pic.twitter.com/CRenvS7qHY
— Jae (이재혁) (@ArmchairRegista) November 15, 2016
Korea 2:1 Uzbekistan
For most of the game Uzbekistan had relied on uber defensive and counter attacking posturing, now found itself having to play attacking football for the first time. But Korea was able to return the favor and counter, with Kim Shin-Wook and Son finding themselves on the advantage. Kim laid it off for Son – but inexplicably, Son tried to play unselfishly and reciprocate back to the Wookie to finish the game off with an open net. Didn’t happen, Son’s pass was nicked and the Wookie would have to spin back to retrieve it. But by then the Uzbeks regrouped in the back to recover. The game would end with Son getting kicked or hurt somehow in a challenge and Korea limped away with 3 points to reclaim 2nd place in Group A.
I’ll be back later for a few more observations on the game and some surprises in Group A and Group B, including a shocker in the Australia / Thailand match. Until I return (2 hours maybe?) Dae han min guk and ddo bo ja!
Shockers in the Asian side of World Cup qualifying, but first, couple of thoughts about today’s match:
- Terrible tactics on display again by Uli Stielike. True, he did substitute quite effectively that turned the fortunes of the match around, but the 1st half was Stielike’s to own. Defensive collapse resulting in the shockingly horrific goal conceded, add to that the lack of ideas to make something meaningful from the overwhelming possession rate -it’s hard to say anyone was surprised at the utter impotence on display through the first hour of the game.
- Kim Ki-Hee, problems at the back yet again. Shockingly bad defending. Is Korea that short on CB options right now?
- Can Uli finally end the Lee Jeong-Hyeop experiment? I don’t want to put the young man down, he’s not a bad player – still raw, but at the end of the day, his touches, frequent off-sides and awkwardness doesn’t lead to confidence, nor is it not out-of-the-box thinking by the German manager. It’s possibly a concerning stubborn pattern that shows more of Stielike’s limitations as manager.
- All the negative aside, there was still enough quality in the Taeguk Warrior squad that showed the right stuff to come back in the face of a determined Uzbek defense. And to be honest, Korea should have had 2 more -had they been more ruthless, a worrisome sign from last week’s tepid encounter with Canada. Kim Shin-Wook, wasn’t as effective on the ground, but played an aerial target man quite effectively – redirecting to Augsburg’s Koo Ja-Cheol for his fine one time finish. Lee Jae-Sung, Park Joo-Ho, Ki Sung-Yeung and Nam Tae-Hee displayed class today in composure to keep working and finding a way past the defense. Son, despite not scoring, did well enough if you factor in a niggling ankle injury. Needless to say, it wasn’t his finest day, but from my observations, he played his part to factor in the win. I will reserve harsher judgement based on his injury, as some chances his way were wasteful.
- Longterm, with an unconvincing WCQ win, I still wonder about Uli Stielike, but it’s a conundrum…Korea may be at the point of no return with the manager that they have as opposed to the manager that they would like to have (Gunes anyone?). With less than 2 years until the 2018 World Cup, it could prove too calamitous to turn around and change managers again. Perhaps the cycle will end simply with with Stielike going out with a group stage exit in 2018 – the icing on the cake being a surprise advance in the round of 16 should everything go fortuitously in the group. But that’s assuming Korea will even make it to Russia, something that is not a given at this point. Looking at how tactics, selections and performances are going, they will be fortunate if they can punch above their weight on the international stage.
Koo said this after the game:
“Playing in the final World Cup qualifying round certainly puts pressure on everyone, and this has not been an easy journey for us. This was clearly an important match, and we came back from the brink of a defeat. I think we all had the kind of experience that we wouldn’t trade for anything, and we also ended up with a victory. I think this should have a positive impact on our five remaining matches.”
While the atmosphere in the locker room has been toxic since Stielike’s alienating comments following the Iran loss, today’s result may temporarily tide things over (until the next calamity?).
Stielike said in his post match comments that he was satisfied with breaking down eventually an Uzbek defense that had only conceded 1 goal throughout the qualifiers. He noted his use of Ki playing his more traditional holding midfield role: “We wanted to have high ball possession, so I put in the players who have good ball control skills. We also used Ki behind, so that he could help us in quick transition from one side of the field to the other.”
Here’s some quasi consolation if you thought today wasn’t easy on the eyes: if Korea is wiggling their way forward, so did Japan. They beat Saudi Arabia but not comfortably to get that result in their Group B WCQ encounter with only a 2:1 scoreline. Saudi Arabia, by scoring the consolation goal in the 90th, are level on points at the top of Group B with Japan, but ahead by just that one goal difference!
Playing in Malaysia because of war conditions in Syria, they played out a 0-0 draw with Iran! That Group A result allowed Korea to close the gap between 1st and 2nd place. Syria – specialists in the scoreless draw -they are relishing their spoiler role in the group.
China hosted Qatar, played to a scoreless draw as well. This was Lippi’s first game in charge of China. He said publicly he was hoping for a ‘miracle’ to pull China up. They remain bottom of Group A with only 1 point.
The biggest shock result of the day: Thailand 2:2 Australia
The Thai manager was so happy, he burst into tears at earning the first point in the qualifiers.
Group A standings halfway through WCQ, razor tight between the top 3.
We're at the halfway mark and here's how Group A stands! #WCQ2018 #RoadToRussia pic.twitter.com/ONuQWi0iQY
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) November 15, 2016
and if you can make out the smaller tweet from the AFC, Group B standings are CRA-ZY! Saudi Arabia continues to surprise many. For Australia, they will feel like it’s a missed opportunity. Take a look
Final standings after five games played! Which four teams will qualify automatically for the @FIFAWorldCup? #WCQ2018 #RoadToRussia pic.twitter.com/mcWU6k7Krq
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) November 15, 2016
One more thing, if you note the attendances today:
Seoul World Cup Stadium: 32,526
Japan’s Saltama Stadium: 58,420
China’s Tuodong Stadium: 32,763
Thailand’s Rajamangala Stadium: 36,534
Seoul World Cup Stadium capacity is 66,704. That’s less than half full. For a vital WCQ. That’s the barometer of things for football in Korea, coming in last in attendance among these WCQs across Asia.
Perhaps the attendance was low for this match because of current political climate in South Korea, not lack of interest.
That’s quite possible actually. Record numbers are in the street.
Korean games never drew very well. There is no football culture in Korea.
National team game attendances are usually decent (it’s the K-League attendances that are really terrible with some exceptions). However, the last, I’d say 4 or 5 national team games at home, attendances ok but have started to drift lower. These last 2 home games, attendance shockingly low -but perhaps the political turmoil is legitimately drawing attention and focus away.
Attendance rates have been pretty consistent over the year with the exception of the game against China (much higher). I’d say it’s highly unlikely the current political scandal is drawing people away from the matches. I haven’t checked all the way back, but I think they’ve likely dragged since the World Cup and especially lately as the quality of the team has dropped. Last 8 home matches (which covers all of 2016 and late 2015)
vs Uzbekistan – 30,526 (Seoul)
vs Canada – 18,920 (Cheonan)
vs Qatar – 32,550 (Suwon)
vs China – 51,238 (Seoul)
vs Lebanon – 30,532 (Ansan)
vs Myanmar – 24,270 (Suwon)
vs Jamaica – 28,105 (Seoul)
vs Laos – 30,205 (Hwaseong)
Is there any interest in Europe for Nam Tae-Hee? It seems like he’s being wasted in Qatar.
I think there was but I believe that was after the 2012 Olympics. I could be wrong but I don’t think there is interest in Europe for NTH, as far as anyone knows.