Quadruple Ouch. It might have been dubbed the Porto Allegre massacre with the scoreline 0-3 by halftime. The disaster supporters have feared all along- an embarrassing loss on a world stage was not just a mere nightmare – it was happening in real time. But viewers who stood by was (partly) rewarded by an entertaining 2nd half – Korea wasn’t done. Their attitude and presence was radically transformed -you could be excused for thinking this was a different game and venue altogether as Korea nearly mounted a historic comeback. But least ye been warned, abandon all pessimism before ye enters here… Anyone at the Tavern today is here in for a proverbial (or actual) drink and therapy session – that is to come away with something useful from this via an unconventional recap. A different perspective perhaps. For a regular recap: the Guardian has it pretty accurately (save for the moments after Son scored and Korea looked in rallying form, they particularly missed the part Ki Seung-Yeung drilled in from distance an absolutely rocket strike that Rais M’Bolhi barely nicked away from getting into net). Koream has a more concise vantage point. But back up a bit, why don’t we start at halftime, after disbelief at the entire backline and Jung Sung-Ryong for the titantic-esque defensive display that brought us to the despairing 0-3 halftime result. Almost equally dismal was the midfield and offense who looked incapable of getting anything accomplished. Halftime seemed like an eternity. What went wrong – so awfully wrong?
I began to flashback. To 2002, almost 12 years ago to the day when Korea started to do the impossible. To 2010 when Korea, after beating Greece 2-0, struggled mightily against Argentina. To 2012 on a hot August night when I decided to plunge headlong into powering up the Tavern right after beating Japan for a memorable Olympic medal win (and military exemption for the squad). To a year ago when Korea fell backward into the World Cup, losing in their last World Cup qualifier in Seoul, firing Choi Kang-hee and hiring Hong Myong-bo practically in one fell motion. This was and still is a team struggling to figure out their own identity – their own abilities and functions. In competitive international football, the fine margins between luck, skill and fate – between a missed strike and a goal conceded can be brutally exposed for an inexperienced defense. Multiple mis-clearances, poor defending, mis-timed goalkeeping, errant passing, faltering set piece defending alongside frenetic Algerian offensive swashbuckling and Korea -along with their supporters were staring at a World Cup fiasco.
I knew that for all my paper theories on what should happen in these World Cup matches, this being one of the strangest and confounding World Cups in memory, many preconceived notions would have to be thrown out. Spain easily advancing. Brazil putting away Mexico. Costa Rica; punching bag in a group with England and Italy. Ghana dispatched by Germany. USA surviving the group of death. To quote (again) Dr Venkman, “left is right, up is down, dogs and cats living together…” This is the madness and unpredictable excitement that is Brazil 2014, and so I also submit: Korea 2 : Algeria 4. But back to halftime, amid the panic and pessimism settling in from twitter and other netwerks (legit I grant you), I decided to get contrarian. If up is truly down in Brazil 2014, why couldn’t the impossible for team Korea be accomplished, a comeback from that deficit? I became strangely calm. Maybe it was from drinking, but I posted this up to my partner in crime at the Tavern:
As Algeria came out at the start of the game, having 0 points in a 2-1 loss to Belgium, making 5 changes to their starting XI – they played as if possessed -frenzied – like they had nothing to lose and everything to play for. I wasn’t in there, nor had a bug implanted in Hong Myong-bo’s locker-room talk, but I can imagine what he said – and it was boiled down to this: steal Algeria’s 1st half mental stance and mojo and OWN IT -make it their own. The Taeguk Warriors would not go down without a fight. Here was a squad that has the talent to score. Put it all together in one concentrated 45 minutes. After all, with the scoreline as it was -they truly had nothing to lose.
Back on the pitch, the grim score and defensive collapse aside, the second half got casual worldwide viewers sitting up to take notice -the part where Korea was fighting back, and discovering for the first time some of the players that we knew all along were aces up Korea’s collective sleeves. The team started playing ball. Son Heung-Min taking that pass on his back, spinning around and deftly maneuvering around a defender -shooting the ball between the keepers legs to get his first World Cup goal – simply a brilliant moment coming early in that half. Never mind the fact a 3 goal deficit comeback hadn’t been seen since 2002 (Uruguay the only team to pull that off against Senegal), but Korea started a comeback campaign – and for a time there was a sense they could pull it off. Hong brought Kim Shin-Wook into the game for Park Chu-Young (not a great performance – won balls back- but little output and chose not to shoot when he was in the area). An interesting move as the tactics would shift again for team Korea. But first, one of the crucial moments: Ki Sung-yeung firing off a brilliant long distance shot, the kind he scored with during his Celtic days. M’Bolhi just got his hand to tip the shot. Ki was unlucky that it didn’t get into net. The next scene, Kim Shin-Wook connected on the header -which went high over the crossbar. Opportunity gone. Not long after, Korea won a free kick in a dangerous spot, then restarted so fast, the cameraman didn’t even get positioned in time to see Korea with a nice opportunity to get in on net – but no cigar. Just mere seconds later the comeback attempt was thwarted by a quick counter – Slimani to Brahimi splitting the Korean defense to score almost too easily- a flash back to their 1st half defensive follies – and pushed Algeria 1-4. Had Ki’s goal went in, or the fast free kick converted – the momentum could have turned the game on it’s head.
Not done yet, Korea kept fighting. Son and company worked harder, getting some more opportunities but couldn’t find their way past the keeper. Things were getting desperate, the clock was ticking ever closer to FT when the ball ping ponging in the area and skipped past Son who couldn’t take advantage. Super sub Lee Keun-Ho to the rescue, he picked up the out of control ball and his quick thinking pass to Koo Ja-Cheol was perfect as Koo knocked it in the net. Koo ran the ball back to quickly reset and look for their 3rd goal. But with long ball after long ball to Kim Shin-Wook – hoping for that magical header, the attack seemed to disintegrate. There was a moment where Algeria figured out the Wookie default strategy and parked the bus – Case in point, Han Kook-Young had acres of space coming towards midfield. He looked tempted to work the ball forward. Instead he obliged to the command structure to send a ‘hail mary’ into the box to find Kim’s head. The Korean bombardment would continue, but the inelegant strategy didn’t have a payoff. Closing minutes, Ji Dong-Won and Lee Keun-Ho, both lively, both had shot that were off target. The goal deficit eventually proved too difficult to overcome and Korea succumbed.
Bitter? It’s all a matter of perspective. Looking back, especially when seeing what Korea could offer in the 2nd half, it was potentially doable for the Taeguk Warriors. They didn’t count on the impact Slimani and 4 new players would make from their typical ultra-cautious side that lost to Belgium. So if it had to be comeback style, a 2 goal deficit was mountable. Consolation: that gallant resolve in the 2nd half – it was there, it almost was enough to surmount that ridiculous goal deficit. This game didn’t have to come to the defensive calamity and collapse we saw today. Without it- the game could’ve gone drastically a different way. But happen it did and the record will not be kind. The 2nd half could prove to be a turning point for Korea given the KNT recent scoring woes. Even in their first group game against Russia – Son shanked some great opportunities to pull Korea ahead while Lee Keun-ho himself admitted that his goal had quite a bit of luck involved. With Son and company breaking their duck so to speak, could the scoring dam have been released? We shall see if that trend continues against Belgium. *note: I did not know Korea has never scored more than 2 goals in any World Cup match. If somehow we did crash out of the tournament, say Korea scores more than 2 goals against Belgium, that would be measured progress of a sort. Additionally, I forgot to mention this last night:
Son Heung-Min: Has completed more successful dribbles (9) after 77 mins vs Algeria, than any other player has in a World Cup 2014 match #kor
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) June 22, 2014
I go back to what I posted earlier in the Tavern – we don’t know which Taeguk Warrior squad will show up to these games – hell we don’t even know which squad will show up for each half if today is any evidence. The tune up matches hinted at the possibility of a fuckatrophe -of a defensive lapse that would distinguish the KNT backline as amateurs. And yet they performed cohesively and adequately a game ago under sustained Russian attack. Han Kook-Young – another case in point – solid against Russia -diminished in his performance against Algeira…
Jung Sung-Ryong is Korea’s veteran goalkeeper. He will be under continued scrutiny for his mistimed misadventures out of position. And yet the Jung that showed up at the Russia match was a different beast altogether…
Unlike the Russia match (where a cautious Korean force got lucky on Lee Keun-Ho’s routine shot turned howler goal), Son worked at it, used brilliant technique and finished well to convert the shot. Lee Keun-Ho, while he didn’t score against Algeria, his vital pass to Koo Ja-Cheol broke down the Algerian defense for the assist. Koo, not so hot in the 1st half, fired it up in the 2nd half. Some of the team’s stocks are rising.
There is use for a real hard reality check – there will be a time to figure out culpability and long term solutions. Is it on the players, the coaches, the KFA, society with mandatory military conscription, Korea culture or lack of Koreans going to domestic league matches? There will be hard questions and soul searching after the World Cup. I can simply say coach Hong, while he does have his fair share of responsibility to shoulder, has to deal with the cards he’s dealt -and he’s had less than a year to put the team back together after hurricane Choi Kang-hee. Among the issues that will await him whenever the tourney ends for Korea, not including Cha Du-Ri and including Park Chu-Young. Big public relations risks – was it worth it? All to be processed later.
But I speak as if Korea has been eliminated. That is not the case, there is still some hope to advance. Let’s look at the table.
Bet Korea wishes they didn’t concede that last goal to Russia. That goal along with today’s loss by 2 goals is the difference in Korea being in a comfortable position to one where they are in a bit of pickle to survive the group. To advance, here’s one of the best scenarios:
1. Korea beats Belgium by a score of 2-0
2. Russia beats Algeria 1-0.
Can Korea do it with the defensive form they’re in? Their back line confidence has to be shaken. The short answer: possibly if Belgium fields their B team. By beating Russia (barely) 1-0, Belgium can in theory rest their starting players.
No matter what happens on Thursday’s games- we will look ahead to the future – one that is alternatively troubling and somehow very bright at the same time for the Taeguk Warriors. 2 am in the morning here on the east coast. Tavern closed for the night. I have no doubt that the sun will still come up in the morning. Chal ga yo.