Korea stumbles in Tehran, loses WC qualifier 1-0

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Korea stumbles in Tehran, loses WC qualifier 1-0


Iranian captain Javad Nekounam, left, celebrates after scoring the winner for the hosts against Korea at Azadi Stadium in Tehran early yesterday morning, Korea Standard Time. With the 1-0 loss, Korea and Iran are tied at seven points each atop Group A of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. [YONHAP]

The Taegeuk Warriors came up short against Iran once again, continuing their winless streak in Tehran during a critical FIFA World Cup qualifier yesterday morning, Korea Standard Time.

With a player sent off, Iran pushed on a man down to squeeze out a 1-0 win. Iranian captain Javad Nekounam received the ball in the penalty area following a deflection from a free kick and blasted it in, with goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong standing no chance.

The 76th-minute strike in front of 100,000 fans at Azadi Stadium would be enough for the three points.

Group A has plunged back into an unpredictable race. Korea and Iran both sit in first with seven points - Korea is ahead on goal differential - while Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon are all within one game’s reach. The top two seeds will play in Brazil in 2014.

Uzbekistan, which tied Korea, 2-2, last month, sprang to third place on five points after beating host Qatar, 1-0, in another match yesterday.

The loss in Tehran extended Korea’s winless streak in Iran to five. Korea entered the match with two losses and two draws in four previous away matchups.

“It is a very regrettable result,” Korea coach Choi Kang-hee said after the match. “The players prepared themselves well and showed a good performance in terms of mental focus, but we ended up not saving a goal chance.”

From early on, Korea struggled to break through Iran’s solid defense. The first shot on target came in the 17th minute from Swansea midfielder Ki Sung-yueng’s mid-range strike. Iran struck back several times, including one close shot from Reza Ghoochannejhad in the 18th minute.

Korea narrowly missed scoring opportunities twice before the break, with Kim Bo-kyung of Cardiff City connecting on a cross from Oh Beom-seok with a header in the 30th minute, only to see it hit the crossbar over the head of Iran’s goalie Seyed Mehdi Rahmati.

Another chance came in the first injury time when Ki’s corner kick from the right-hand side connected with Kwak Tae-hwi’s head. That again hit the crossbar.

The game appeared to be heading in Korea’s favor in the second half when Iran’s Masoud Shojaej was booked with a second yellow card in the 54th minute for an untimely challenge.

Coach Choi sent in Lee Chung-yong of Bolton for midfielder Lee Keun-ho in the 69th minute to help capitalize on the man down, but the efforts lacked sharpness as Korea failed to seize momentum.

Iran then capitalized in the 76th minute when Ashikan Dejagah’s free kick was back passed by Andranik Taymourian and deflected to Nekounam, who connected with a right-footed half-volley inside the left post.

Korea failed to create scoring chances down the final stretch except for a 84th-minute shot by Yun Suk-young that surged over the crossbar.

Son Heung-min of Hamburg SV, the 20-year-old talent from the Bundesliga, had his chances limited as coach Choi opted to go with Kim Shin-wook, a 24-year-old forward of the Ulsan Tigers, to play alongside Park Chu-young of Celta Vigo.

Son came on for Kim Bo-kyung in the 53rd minute. Neither Park, 27, nor Son impressed.

Coach Choi still complimented his players, saying the team did not yield much ground to the hosts.

“The players played well,” Choi said. “As there is a home match remaining, we will not be disappointed and get prepared well for the rest of the matches.”

Three of the four remaining matches for Korea in its quest to clinch a berth to the World Cup are at home, including against Qatar on March 26, Uzbekistan on June 11 and Iran on June 18. The Lebanon match on June 4 will be in Beirut.

Many consider 16 points as a safe bet for Korea’s eighth consecutive ticket to the World Cup. Korea advanced to the 2010 World Cup on the same point total from four wins and four draws in the final qualifying round.

The Iran match was the A-level debut for Park Jong-woo of Busan I’Park, who is waiting for the International Olympic Committee’s decision on whether to sanction his behavior during the London Olympics.

Park, a midfielder for the Hong Myung-bo squad, held up a banner reading “Dokdo is our land,” referring to the Korea’s easternmost islets also claimed by Japan, after Korea beat Japan, 2-0, at the bronze medal decider at the London Games in August.

Korea will play a friendly against Australia on Nov. 14.

By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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