Quick recap as Korea played Iran to a nearly full house at Seoul World Cup Stadium, a crucial penultimate 3rd round World Cup Qualifier that Korea needed to win and Uzbekistan to lose against China to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Korea had been under a hoodoo against Iran, failing to win against the Persians since 2011. Could they break that to gain entry to the World Cup finals for the 9th consecutive time, the opportunity right for the taking with Iran down to 10 men for nearly 30 minutes AND China scoring late to take a 1-0 lead against Uzbekistan?
On paper, Shin Tae-Yong lined Korea to be offensively set up with a 4-2-3-1
— Namu Yoon (@namujyoon) August 31, 2017
The surprise: Kim Min-Jae getting the start – one of the few bold moves from Shin Tae-Yong. Korea’s attacking set up on paper looked like it could make impact – and early on, it nearly did. Korea came out aggressive, took some chances, and shots almost on target. Kim Jin-Su had a shot go wide, and Korea’s best chance on goal in the half came when Jang Hyun-soo headed down a corner, only to watch it go wide by inches.
However, Korea’s attack fizzled out – and Iran countered several times to make their presence known. There was some defensive stumbles as well, Kim Jin-Su’s poor clearance led to Iranian chances and Kim Seung-Gyu looked shaky in the box, including a bobbled save late in the game that came out of his hands. He also failed to clear well, the optics not looking quite so well. That translated to a clearly cut up pitch at Seoul’s stadium – a sign that all is not well with the K-League; one can guess that finances are tight enough that the pitch was visibly in poor condition – possibly a reason CB Kim Young-Gwon whiffed at a clearance (in replays, you could argue the pitch was to blame – he later went back to the tufts of grass that Kim patted back in place). Either way, much as Korea tried to play a passing game to work their way to the final third, that last threaded pass just couldn’t make it’s way to any of the acting forwards. Son, Lee Jae-Sung, Kwon Chang-Hoon, all had mini- moments of brilliance, but as a whole, they couldn’t break down the Iranian defense. Hwang did his best to hustle his way around the field but to no avail. The set peices were Korea’s best chances to score, Son’s deflected FK nearly caused an Iranian heart attack, Kwon later hitting a curling free kick that just went over the net. No breakthrough by HT though Korea looked like they were the likeliest to break the deadlock. Early in the 2nd half, that chance looked golden when this happened:
Saeid Ezatolahi is sent off. pic.twitter.com/jftHUvOiu2
— Korea Football News (@KORFootballNews) August 31, 2017
Electric atmosphere as the red card sendoff for stamping Kim Min-Jae’s head gave Korea a man advantage with roughly 30 minutes to go. But Korea’s attack just couldn’t get it going. It was as if Korea seemed more panicked to move the ball forward, but wound up giving the ball away more often than not. Korea trying to play passing game in final third – which supporters could applaud the idea -however the execution was less than graceful (where have we heard this one before?). With time starting to run out, Shin Tae-Yong appeared to go conservative with sub changes, knowing full well the bench options present a well of concerns just as it presented possibilities. With a free kick opportunity roughly 15 minutes left, Shin made his first move – subbing off Lee Jae-Sung for Kim Shin-Wook. Therein the strategy slowly but surely shifted to long ball tactics, with hopes the tall Jeonbuk forward could knock one down to either Son or Hwang. Instead, just as it did with Uli Stielike, and just as it did with Choi Kang-Hee before him, the rudimentary strategy of the long ball to the Wookie was akin to a hail mary pass, rarely ending in anything but futility.
The next sub was an interesting move: Kim Min-Jae finished his first cap as CB and replaced with a like for like defender in Kim Ju-Young. Korea’s attack labored to get any kind of offense going, but barely bothered Iran’s keeper. The long ball strategy was simply too easy to read for Iran’s increasingly compacted defense.
Shin Tae-Yong was even more animated on the sidelines when word trickled to him that China jumped ahead of Uzbekistan.
CHINA HAS SCORED. IF KOREA WINS THEY GO THROUGH. https://t.co/lWjWcFJ9S6
— The Taeguk Warriors (@taeguk_warrior) August 31, 2017
That was relayed quickly on the field, but Korea still struggled to break the impasse. Time ticking – 5 minutes to go, Shin, with reticence, took out the ever hard working Hwang Chan-Hee and replaced with the aging 38 year old Lee Dong-Gook. Lee had been talking to the press prior to the game, implying that Korea’s younger players didn’t give enough and that he was ready to jump in and show what they’ve been missing.
He got his chance in stoppage time when he chested down a long pass 25 yards from goal, he did well to move into position at the top of the area, but with 2 Koreans in front of him as options (Wookie and Kwon I believe) and a defender pressing him from the right, he opted to go hero mode and take an audacious shot. It was closer to hitting the upper deck than the goal post. In hindsight, perhaps he could’ve faked the shot and passed to better options up front, as he tried to explain to his teammates post match. Didn’t change the facts on the ground as Korea frustratingly drew nil-nil to 10 man Iran and a opportunity to qualify with Uzbekistan’s late game loss to China. It was disappointing on a number of levels, but Korea can still claim a spot in World Cup 2018 with a win or draw next Wednesday in Uzbekistan – if Korea can regroup in time to salvage what’s left of their campaign to get their first away win in the final game in this 3rd round of qualifying.
The take away: Korea still far too tentative, the lack of polish to execute a quick passing game to finally make Iran concede a goal. Before getting too far into negative territory, the debut of Kim Min-Jae at CB partnering with Kim Young-Gwon was decent enough, the Jeonbuk man proved his worth and sacrificed his face in the red card incident. Kim Seung-Gyu mixed performance, routine saves with some poor clearances and shakiness on set pieces. But in the end a clean sheet at the back.
Not a pretty game from either side, with heavy touches and awkward non-football on display, it wasn’t easy on the eyes and that partially could be blamed on the poor conditions on the pitch -another condemnation of the abysmal state of affairs of Korean football in general. But poor pitch aside, while Korea were unlucky with not getting their chances converted, the real damning indictment on this KNT squad was their haplessness when Iran were down a man. To not take that advantage, this isn’t just a draw, everyone watching in Seoul and on television will be right in calling this effectively more as a loss, as in lost opportunity. For 30 minutes. Not Son, not Kwon, not Lee Jae-Sung, not Koo, not Jang Hyun-Soo, not Kim Jin-Su, as a team, despite decent club pedigrees, were unable to take advantage and coordinate offensively with purpose. It was haphazard as a whole and a consequence of changing course with managers this late in the qualifying game. Individual players can take some of the blame of course, but the largess of onus is on the KFA. Shin can and should take blame, especially for his 2nd half game management, and yet take some slight cover since this is his first game in charge. Korea will overall rue missed opportunities. There is only 6 days to right the course to avoid a 4th round of qualification. While Japan cruises into qualifying in their Group B, Korea must fight on another day, and Taeguk Warrior watchers look on in agony and teeth clenched next Wednesday with a mixture of uncertainty and lingering hope. Despite what netizens might say, Korea still has enough – on paper – to qualify if they bring their A game to the show.
This just in: Syria level on points with Uzbekistan, and 2 goal difference ahead to take 3rd place just behind Korea. Syria plays at Tehran next Wednesday. There is a slight possibility that Syria could leapfrog into 2nd place, but that would happen only if Korea Uzbekistan ends in a scoreless draw and Syria were to somehow get a win at Tehran.
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) August 31, 2017
Son in post match interview:
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) August 31, 2017
Next up: the final 3rd round WCQ with Korea visiting Uzbekistan September 5 at 11 AM US EST / Sept 6 in Korea at midnight.