Taegeuk Warriors make their point in Brazil

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Taegeuk Warriors make their point in Brazil

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A crowd gathered at Yeongdong-daero, the 14-lane boulevard next to Coex mall, southeastern Seoul, cheers yesterday after Lee Keun-ho scores the first goal during the national football team’s first match of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil yesterday against Russia, the first opponent in Group H. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. Korea’s next opponent will be Algeria on Monday, Korea time. [NEWSIS]

Korea earned a meaningful point in the first Group H match in the 2014 Brazil World Cup with improved defense and a lucky goal by substitute Lee Keun-ho.

In the match against Russia at 7 a.m. Tuesday in Brazil at the Arena Pantanal, the Taegeuk Warriors led by Coach Hong Myung-bo took a 1-0 lead when Lee scored in the 68th minute after replacing striker Park Chu-young.

But the lead was short-lived as Alexander Kerzhakov leveled the match six minutes later and Korea settled for a 1-1 draw.

“Sonsation” Son Heung-min and Lee Chung-yong led the team’s offense with their speed and mid-range shots, while midfielder Han Kook-young anchored the defense with aggressive and efficient tackles. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong shook off the fears of analysts and fans to make several fine saves.

But Korea’s play left much to be desired as the defense failed to break a bad habit: allowing a goal soon after their side scores.

And a huge question mark remains about striker Park Chu-young, who exited the pitch in the 56th minute without attempting a single shot.

“It’s a bit sad that we only earned one point in a match in which we were leading,” said Hong. “But considering it was our first match in the event, I think the players did an excellent job. I will now focus on the players recovering physically in order to prepare for the next match with Algeria [on Monday, Korea time].”

Against Russia, there were no surprises in Hong’s lineup. Under the 4-2-3-1 formation, striker Park was at the top of the offense, backed up by attacking midfielders Son, captain Koo Ja-cheol and Lee. Ki Sung-yueng and Han Kook-young were paired as defensive midfielders in front of defenders Yoon Suk-young, Kim Young-gwon, Hong Jung-ho and Lee Yong.

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Korea’s Lee Keun-ho celebrates his goal against Russia during their 2014 World Cup Group H soccer match at the Arena Pantanal in Cuiaba, Brazil, yesterday morning, Korea time. [REUTERS/NEWS1]

Before the match, Hong said he would focus on not losing and his team’s play mirrored that strategy. Korea first tried to build up a strong defensive wall on its side. Wing-backs Yoon and Lee Yong, who helped the midfielders on offense, didn’t spend much time on the opponent’s side of the field. Rather, they focused on cutting off incoming Russian passes. Defensive midfielder Han Kook-young stayed close with the four wing-back defenders to help whenever necessary. Once they intercepted the ball, pass master Ki Sung-yueng distributed the ball to wingers Son and Lee.

In the ninth minute, Korea created a scoring chance when Lee Chung-yong made a beautiful through pass to Park Chu-young who had penetrated the right side of the penalty box after perfectly breaking Russia’s offside trap, but his right foot was an inch short of receiving the ball.

In the 11th minute, after an interception at the bottom of the center circle, Koo delivered a long pass to Son who dribbled all the way up to the center-right arc area and attempted a mid-range shot that sailed high.

When Russia began to dominate the game after the scoreless first half, Hong replaced Park with Lee Keun-ho in the 56th minute. The decision soon paid off. Lee created spaces for midfielders Koo and Lee Chung-yong by switching positions with Son frequently and helped defenders put midfield pressure on the Russians.

The goal came in a counterattack. After receiving the intercepted ball, Lee drove all the way from the center circle to the right side of the arc and then blasted a shot. It looked manageable, but it squirmed through the hands of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, gifting Korea the lead. It was the first career World Cup goal for Lee who is doing his two-year military duty at the Sangju Sangmu Phoenix. He receives only 149,000 won ($146) per month, which puts him last in earnings among the 736 players in the tournament.

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“I have dreamed of scoring a goal in the World Cup for a long time,” said Lee. “I had good feelings when I practiced shooting during training, and I’m happy for the outcome.”

Kerzhakov, however, came to Akinfeev’s rescue with an equalizer from close range in the 74th minute.

Korea’s best defender was Han Kook-young, who ran a total of 11.356 kilometers (seven miles) in the match. His aggressive pressure and tackles that gave Korea possession stirred memories of 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup player Kim Nam-il, who earned the nickname “vacuum cleaner” from Coach Guus Hiddink.

“All I thought about in this match was to intercept the ball from Russia and make passes to Ki, who’s the team’s starting point on offense,” Han said.

Since both Korea and Algeria consider each other as an opponent from whom they should earn three points, the match on Sunday (local time) is expected to be a slugfest.

“It’s too early to talk about strategies against Algeria, but we need to put forth our best effort just like we did tonight,” said Hong.

BY KWON SANG-SOO [sakwon80@joongang.co.kr]






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