As the euphoria from the Argentina match simmered down, the anxiety and competitiveness was in full bloom with this year’s definitive edition of the Hanniljeon, or Nikkansen looming over the not-so-distant horizon. But characteristically of heavily anticipated sporting affairs, it proved to be a scrappy and tightly contested affair as Korea doggedly limped over the line into the Quarter Finals.
The Line Ups
Korea started with an unchanged formation from the team that secured qualification into the Round of 16 against Argentina. Coach Chung Jungyong once again deployed a narrow three at the back formation, asking attackers and wing backs to help widen play on the counter, setting up direct passing avenues for the young starlet Lee Kangin.
The Japanese lined up in a fluid 4-4-2, looking to take initiative early on through the patient technical build-up of passing triangles that had served their side well throughout the Group Stages. This worked heavily in their favour, with Japan dominating possession during the first half; 72% – 28%.
First Half: Disorientated and disorganised, yet fortunate
Hoping to emulate the sharp counter attacking success that Korea had against Argentina, Korea sat back from the beginning, allowing their opponents to lay on the pressure. Early signs however, suggested that we would be in for a bumpy ride.
Korea went out looking to frustrate Japan early, setting up a compact and disciplined defence against a hardworking and technically sound Japanese side. The Blue Samurai continued prompting and probing at the somewhat static and lethargic Korean defense. Navigating their way through the midfield through passing triangles down the wing in Pep-like Fashion, surprisingly, Japan were struggling to carve out any clear-cut opportunities. Mitsuki Saito looked every bit like Japan’s answer to Lee Kangin as he dictated early tempo extremely well, even spraying the occasional wide pass to Suguwara on the right-hand side. As a result, Suguwara came close for Japan early, just skewing his shot over the bar.
Shortly after, eyebrows were raised when the referee waved away Japanese protests regarding a handball that, in retrospect, should have been given.
Despite Japan’s failure to capitalise on their possession stats, Korea didn’t offer much going forward either, with every attack either cut out instantly or a bagful of misplaced towards a clearly fatigued Lee Kangin. Nevertheless, Lee still managed to conjure up Korea’s best chance of the first half, as he saw his deliciously dipping free kick just wide to the left of the post.
In the end I think Japan really missed Tagawa today and as the first half drew to a close without any big chances despite the abundance of possession, it became clear that Japan didn’t have a plan B.
Second Half: Redemption
After a boring and labourious first half performance from Korea, Chung Jungyong immediately responded during the break, bringing on Um WonSang, a substitution that turned the game on its head.
With the introduction of Um, Korea reverted to a back four, holding a structured 4-4-2 in defence to match Japan man for man, while shifting into a more convenient 4-2-3-1 of sorts while in transition or attack. This worked greatly to the Koreans’ favour, as Korea’s patient and contained first half approach began to pay dividends.
The introduction of Um Wonsang gave Korea a much needed injection of directness and pace, as he time and time again continued to penetrate Japan down the right hand side.
However, in typical Japanese fashion they persevered, almost taking the lead at the 55th minute if not for a tight but correct VAR decision. Japan continued to be lively, with Nakamura crafting a golden opportunity for himself only to be blocked by Jeong Ho Jin and for Miyashiro’s follow up attempt to come off the woodwork. Japan couldn’t believe it, they couldn’t find a way through.
But luckily, it was with that classic never say never Hanniljeon attitude that Korea pushed men hurriedly forward, desperately trying to snatch victory in the dying embers of the game.
It came. In the form of Oh Sehun, whose neat build up play and pressing went unnoticed, until in the 84th minute when his glancing header guided Choi Jun’s cross past the keeper and into the back of the net to seal a late win for Korea.
Were we just lucky today?
Korea struggled hard against Japan early today, being absolutely dominated on and off the ball. Korea will have the stars to thank after Japan’s early handball claim was controversially overlooked by the referee. However, they did defend compactly and smartly. Although this may not have been the best game of the likes of Kim Jungmin and Lee Kangin, the defence has remained watertight throughout the entire tournament and we have yet to see the full potential of this squad.
As far as classic smash and grab victories go, questions will always be raised regarding the “fortunate” nature of the win, but you know what they say, “fortune favours the brave.”
Korea 1 – 0 Japan