This will be a super short recap/summary -other Tavern writers will add to this as the day goes on. In a bit of a risky move, Paulo Bento opted to start Son Heung-min, who arrived Monday morning in the UAE not long after playing 90 minutes for Tottenham on Sunday against Manchester United. Seemingly shedding any signs of jetlag, Son added a decisively positive element missing for Korea and they notched a semi-comfortable win against China, leapfrogged above them and finished top of Group C. The result means that Korea, having been the first team to gather all 9 points possible in the group stages, took care of business and most importantly, get a vital 5 day rest (as opposed to 3 had they been runner-ups) before the Round of 16 begins.
However, some dark clouds are gathering in the Korea camp as Steve Han reported on Twitter; Lee Seung-woo kicked a water bottle in frustration after realizing that he would not see any minutes to see out the game against China. Lee was called up at the last minute when Na Sang-ho was unable to play due to injury. Bento’s exclusion of the Hellas Verona player has raised eyebrows -particularly as a less-than-sharp Korea saw out narrow 1 goal marginal results against the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan. More importantly, there is concern that Bento, who has done tactically enough to get 9 points in the group stage, isn’t rotating players properly for the long haul – and in particular regarding their talisman in Son, let him linger dangerously for the entire game – only taking him off with 3 minutes left to go. With Korea looking comfortable with a 2 goal lead in the 2nd half – it was a baffling decision why Bento risked leaving Son out there for so long; he was tackled, stomped on and suffered minor injuries on 3 different occasions before finally getting substituted for Koo Ja-Cheol. The long shift also risks burnout (more on that later). It was a gamble that in some ways paid off for Bento; Son was directly involved in both goals. Korea will get a well deserved 5 days rest, however questions linger about Bento and his ability to oversee the long game in this Asian Cup tourney.
Let’s look at the starting XI
Again a 4-2-3-1, this time Kim Jin-su replacing Hong Chul at LB, Kim Moon-hwan replaces Lee Yong (out serving yellow card suspension), and Son Heung-min replacing Koo in the hole. Immediately Son’s presence was felt keenly by China’s defense. In just the 12th minute, Son drove into the box, surrounded by multiple defenders, cut inside to find a sliver of space when he was hacked down by Zheng Zhi. Paulo Bento made a crucial decision (probably pre-match) to designate Hwang Ui-jo to take the penalties (see Asian Games for context). Hwang stutter-stepped in the run up to the ball, but couldn’t get keeper Junling to commit. He directed the shot left – but Junling guessed correctly and leapt to keep Ui-jo’s ball out! It was just an inch beyond his fingertips as Ui-jo did well to send it in to the far left corner and on into the net.
Korea 1:0 China
Son and company kept on with the attack -and just as they had with their other 2 games, controlled the lion’s share of possession. The only difference was Korea looked sharper, moving the ball from the ball from the back to the front efficiently and calmly despite an intense forward-press from China. The entire backline led by Kim Young-gwon was unflustered and adroitly had the chops to get in and around their counterparts. The few times China came at them, the disciplined and unperturbed Korea defense did well to mop up. Kim Moon-hwan really raised eyebrows (except to those who watched his performance in the Asian Games) with his heads up play down the right, and later in the match had a poised fantastic run that had the entire Chinese defense in tatters trying to stop him as he changed directions – he came ever so close to scoring his first senior KNT goal but the ball went just wide of net.
The battle for the midfield was won by a clever tag-team combo of Lee Chung-yong and Hwang In-beom (and to a degree Jung Woo-young), with technical skillfulness to create space (and more precise passing than in the previous 2 matches) to dominate the pitch. Meanwhile Son did his part drawing away multiple Chinese defenders -and in the tactical chessmatch of things, it thusly allowed space to open up for Hwang Hee-chan and Hwang Ui-jo. Despite decent on-target shots by the ‘Hwangs,’ Korea was unable to double the advantage until the 2nd half, where Son inflicted further damage. He whipped in a dangerous corner kick just 6 minutes after the restart, and Kim Min-jae, just as he did with his heroics against Kyrgyzstan, made himself invisible on the outside, until he could pounce. He ran towards the ball that was zipped into the middle and connected quickly before Zhou Xuri could spot the oncoming danger. Zhou was too late. Kim knocked it in with force and finally Korea got an insurance goal. Korea sapped the remaining hope China had, enough to see out the scoreline until the end.
Korea 2:0 China
Of course that wasn’t the end of it: Son kept up the pressure on China’s beleaguered defense, driving in, finding outlets in an open Kim Jin-Su in the box on one occasion (his shot deflected out for a corner) and later to Hwang Hee-chan – a cheeky corner kick/pass that took the defense by surprise- but Hwang shot managed to reach the upper stands. Hwang Ui-jo practically walked in the Chinese area, but with multiple Korean attackers open in and outnumbering the split Chinese defense, Ui-jo couldn’t decide whether to shoot or pass – the ball was taken from him before he could make up his mind and the chance went begging. After Ji Dong-won replaced Hwang Ui-jo in the 70th minute (note: you would think Son and Ui-jo could both come off at this point), Son went up top to further cause conniptions to China’s backline. However by this point Son looked completely out of gas and didn’t have enough in the tank to pull out any more rabbit tricks from his locker, with several potent Son drives snuffed out by the defense.
Post match, Son said this on letting Ui-jo take the penalty:
“Ui-jo has been on a tear and his confidence has been running high, so I wanted him to take that shot. If he keeps scoring like that, it’s great for our team.” -Son Heung-min
With the win and topping the group, Korea not only earn themselves 5 days rest instead of 3, they also travel less (R of 16 in Dubai, beyond that the rest will be in Abu Dhabi) and will likely have a less challenging road in the knockout stages as they will face the 3rd place team in Group A, B or F next Tuesday.
More on the game later, he’s the 2 goals via KFA twitter
We’ll be back later. What are your thoughts on the final group C game for Korea?