What happens when a stoppable force meets a movable object?
The result gets decided on a penalty.
Korea lined up with a strong starting eleven, and Shin Tae-young mercifully saved viewers from a potential car crash of a defensive performance by starting with four at the back.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.
In a mutually understood must-win game for both sides, especially considering Mexico’s shock result against Germany, the match started brightly enough for Korea, with the first ten minutes played mostly in Sweden’s half.
But the early dominance didn’t last; airballs and crossing can only threaten so much, and Sweden grew into the match, creating the more dangerous opportunities in the first half. A quick 1-2 between Berg and the 33 year old center-back Granqvist completely eliminated Korea’s midfield at the top of the box, and if not for a heroic last minute slide tackle by Kim Young-kwon, it would have been the passage of play to break the deadlock.
Or perhaps not. Cho Hyun-woo, who deputized in net in his first World Cup, put on a heroic display and was solely responsible in keeping Korea in the game. If Shin Tae-yong managed to do anything right, it was start Cho, who not only plucked loose balls out of the air, but also came up with massive saves, a 1-on-1 opportunity against Marcus Berg the highlight of the lot. Sturdier hands hadn’t been seen since Korea had Lee Woon-jae between the sticks.
Beyond that, Korea’s play was lackluster, and against a rather ordinary Swedish side, talking points were few and far in between. Son, who was practically invisible as was the rest of Korea’s attacking prowess, gave Swedish captain Granqvist a scare – beating the centerback for pace – but was unable to find Hwang Hee-chan in the box with his cut-back. Other than that, Korea tried to knock possession around, but a wayward ball from Jang Hyun-soo had Park Joo-ho lunging to reach the pass, only to crumble clutching his hamstring. With Korea’s 2nd string left-back out, on came Kim Min-woo just thirty minutes into the game.
The halftime whistle came to Korea’s convenience – a late, blistering header off target by Claessen summing up not only the pressure Korea was under, but also the lackluster finishing showcased by both sides, who were equally searching for attacking form and equally diligent in the tackle. Going into the half, Korea needed a change if they were going to find a result. An absolute absence of offensive play, tidy ball distribution, and any semblance of a midfield begged for a change.
We did not get a change.
Continuing with long-ball tactics and placing Ki, our main midfield distributor of the ball, as deep as the defensive line meant more of the same for Korea, and play continued to get choppier as both sides highlighted their defensive discipline more than their attacking ability—Larsson’s stamp on the back of Koo Ja-cheol’s leg just one of the many episodes that broke up the game.
No card – despite the ref’s seemingly hard stance displayed when booking Kim Shin-wook just 13 minutes in after his first challenge of the game.
Koo almost got his revenge just minutes after, connecting with Kim Min-woo’s cross that was headed off target. Hwang Hee-chan also nearly created the best chance of the match out of nothing by robbing Granqvist of the ball deep in Sweden’s half, his low cross knocked out of bounds before even reaching the near post.
But the deadlock was broken after another half chance passage of play; Augustinsson whipped in a cross that Cho Hyun-woo slapped, but Claesson, who had been booked just minutes beforehand after a bad challenge on Hwang, beat Kim Min-woo to the ball and tumbled. What could have been a promising counterattacking opportunity for Korea was stopped at the edge of Sweden’s box as the referee went to refer to VAR.
The replay didn’t lie – a deserved penalty.
With twenty minutes left to play and one goal down, Shin Tae-yong opted for the sensible substitution of taking off Kim Shin-wook, a target man striker, for Jung Woo-yong, a defensive midfielder. Perhaps Shin knew that it was useless to have a striker that could find the end of a cross, considering how many wayward crosses gifted Sweden possession – some not even making it off the ground. Lee Yong once again put on a display reminding the world that Korea still desperately needs a decent right back.
Five minutes after Korea’s second substitution came the final one that everyone had been waiting for – Barca youth product Lee Seung-woo for the rather invisible Koo Ja-cheol.
Nothing happened; despite the pressure that Korea piled on the end of the match, Sweden were compact, unabashedly sitting in their box, comfortable to ride out the match and frustrate the toothless Korean attack.
Within those ten minutes of Korea recycling possession and looking for a breakthrough came two promising chances – Son Heung-min squared a lobbed ball to Hwang Hee-chan just beside the penalty spot, but it was a day late and a dollar short as Hwang tried to turn. The ball was intercepted and cleared before he could get a shot away.
But Hwang’s best chance would come deep into stoppage time. With Korea looking more and more comfortable with possession, Sweden confident in riding the result out, Lee Jae-sung headed an overhit cross back into the box, and Hwang, completely unmarked, shot his header well wide of the keeper’s right.
Half-chances were really all that Korea deserved, considering their play. When attacking, Korea looked lost. Smart, quick passing that we’re known for was nowhere to be seen. Korea’s midfield, easily the strongest aspect of this side by a mile, was invisible. Lee Jae-sung was kept quiet, Son never saw the ball, and Ki looked more like a center back than a center midfielder in the second half especially when we were chasing the match.
To be expected; the witless Shin Tae-yong came into the tournament with no clear plan A, hid behind his excuses, and asked for unwarranted support. Besides a 2-0 win in Korea against a Honduras B side, we came into the tournament with a dearth of goals, confidence, and a proper game plan.
Perhaps his biggest trick was managing to have fans hold on to any shred of hope. But now with two matches left against the joint group leaders Mexico and current world champions Germany, all we can ask for are dignified performances. And then of course, his exit.
Anything else is a bonus.