Disjointed Korea left needing a miracle

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

There were a couple of poignant moments that perfectly summed up the probable end to Korea’s World Cup campaign.

Saturday’s 2-1 defeat here in Rostov-on-Don leaves the team facing the almost impossible task of beating Germany (and scoring twice in the process) and needing Mexico to defeat Sweden as well.

The first came as the side went into the break trailing to a Carlos Vela penalty. As the staff and players made their way up the tunnel, one man hobbled over to the sideline, alone, and greeted each of his team-mates as they left the pitch.

That was the injured left-back Park Joo-ho, who speaking to Fox Sports Asia after
full-time, told of the personal heartbreak of seeing yet another World Cup impacted by injury. He and several others that have carried the torch for Korean football could well have seen close to their final action.

“It’s a difficult moment with some young players and maybe the time has come for those players to take over, but at least we can say that we didn’t give up in this match,” he said.

“For me though I’m so sad about this injury. I tried my best to do what I can for the team and you know that players always wait for the World Cup. With the last World Cup, I also had an injury so it’s just so sad right now.”

Bizarrely, coach Shin Tae-yong, speaking post-match, also referenced the missing players who were injured both prior to and during the World Cup saying that when he looked across at the substitute’s bench he wished they were present.

“I thought about those players and felt that if they were here then maybe Son Heung-min wouldn’t have been so isolated and we could have played better if they weren’t injured,” he said.

During the buildup and then the tournament itself where Shin Tae-young’s comments have been somewhere between cryptic and downright odd, this tournament of disjointed performances was capped by the coach himself in the 80th minute.

With a loose ball falling straight at his feet and keen to have a quick throw-in taken, he attempted to chip it straight to one of his players standing barely two metres away, but the ball skied off his shoe and flew out over the advertising boards. It was a perfect metaphor for a tournament where little has gone right for one of Asia’s
leading nations.

For the first 20 minutes against a dynamic Mexican side they were hard-working and well-organised, but after conceding that penalty midway through the half, many of the problems from the first match also re-appeared.

The narrow 4-4-2 that they played worked well in shutting down Mexico centrally, but as soon as they started playing diagonally with the full-backs pushing on, they caused Korean no end of problems.

At the other end, the over-reliance of Son Heung-min’s team-mates to funnel the ball to him as often as possible and the Tottenham star’s willingness to try to do too many things by himself, also stymied an attack that far too often broke down at the point of getting into solid positions.

Indeed, it was Son’s attempt to try and dribble his way past three defenders that saw the side dispossessed and which led to the opening Mexican goal.

At another point during the second half, Hwang Hee-chan found himself in a good position inside the box but rather than shooting, tried to play the ball to Son, who was in a far less favourable position and once again the play broke down.

Most worryingly of all was just how physically exhausted the team looked.

Admittedly it was a scorching 36 degrees in southern Russia and with plenty of humidity as well, but having claimed post-match that the team had weather data for every day over the past five years, the coaching staff should have been prepared for these kinds of conditions.

As it was, at the end of the 90 minutes only Son, Ki-Sung-yueng and defender Jang Hyun-soo (all of whom play abroad) were left standing. The other players were sprawled on the pitch, a ball of exhaustion – and that after having played at walking pace against a lively Mexican side for much of the final 20 minutes.

In amongst a throng of oles during the final 10 minutes of the match, something else unusual happened – from a Mexican perspective – as the huge number of fans, many of whom have been persistent in wanting the Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio removed, all suddenly started chanting his name in unison.

At the same time, the Korean coach who has been tactically out-thought in both matches and uttered a string of highly awkward public statements, was busy kicking the ball in the wrong direction.

It could well be close to the final act he has in charge of the national team at the end of a campaign that’s gone as most expected it would.

Almost certainly, there will be a disappointing early exit unless this fractured side (with captain Ki also set to join the injured brigade) need a miracle to keep their faint hopes alive.

Frankly, it’s hard to see that happening.