Lackluster Korea end qualifiers with 1-0 loss to U.A.E.
What should have been a triumphant finish to Korea's World Cup qualifying campaign ended in embarrassment on Tuesday night, as a lackluster Taeguk Warriors lost 1-0 to a United Arab Emirates team that sits 40 spots below them on the FIFA World Ranking.
Tuesday's game at Al-Maktoum stadium in Dubai was expected to be something of a victory lap, a chance for Korea, who had already earned their spot at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, to work on their teamwork and earn some bragging rights by finishing the third round of qualifiers without a single defeat.
Instead, Korea managed only two shots on target throughout the full 90 minutes, controlling an overwhelming 78 percent of the ball but failing to do absolutely anything with it.
In the space of five days, Korea appeared to go from a fairly cohesive squad that offered glimpses of brilliance against Iran last week to 11 men fumbling their way around each other with no real sense of unity or teamwork.
Despite passing accuracy at 89 percent, Korea's midfield appeared completely unable to string together any sort of cohesive play — attacks just petered out or uncertain pauses gave the defense plenty of time to catch up. Set pieces were also an issue — Korea took 16 corners and didn't come close to scoring a single goal.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the Taeguk Warriors to collapse so spectacularly. The only change to the lineup from last Thursday's 2-0 win over Iran was in goal, with Jo Hyeon-woo taking over from Kim Seung-gyu.
Bento abandoned his familiar 4-1-4-1 formation that proved so successful a week earlier for a 4-1-3-2 format that didn't really achieve anything, with Hwang Ui-jo still pulling out in front on his own and Kwon Chang-hoon still inching back into attacking midfield.
The slight change did appear to set Hwang Hee-chan and Son Heung-min free, pulling them in from the wings slightly and setting them loose across the middle of the pitch. Wolverhampton Wanderers' Hwang, in particular, seemed to jump at this opportunity, appearing everywhere and anywhere the ball ended up. That nearly paid off in the first half when a well-placed volley from outside the box deflected off the bar, but that was about as close as Korea got to scoring.
It's possible that Korea's unimpressive performance was a result of tiredness or a struggle to adapt to the warm climate, having played last week in a decidedly chilly Seoul. Six members of the squad — Tottenham Hotspur's Son, Wolverhampton's Hwang Hee-chan, Bordeaux's Hwang Ui-jo, Mainz's Lee Jae-sung, Fenerbahce's Kim Min-jae and Al Sadd's Jung Woo-young — had racked up some serious air miles, flying all the way to Korea and then back again in the course of a few days.
That could explain some of what happened in Dubai, although it doesn't build confidence for the World Cup, which will also take place in a hot Middle Eastern country in the middle of the European league seasons. The bigger concern is that Tuesday's result was the result of complacency or hubris — that having beaten Iran, the squad assumed the U.A.E. would be easy.
"What we did today was the worst performance we've had," head coach Paulo Bento said after the game. "What we did today, we should be disappointed with more than the result, with the performance and with the attitude.
"After winning the previous game and getting the first position, and losing the first position in the next game, competing and playing as we did. For me, it's not normal. It's a signal. If we don't understand this, we're going to have more problems in the future, for sure."
Of course, the result of Tuesday's game really does not matter. Korea have already earned a ticket to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, and while the loss knocks them down to second in Group A in the third round of Asian qualifiers, that doesn't mean anything for the actual World Cup.
The loss could impact Korea's world ranking slightly, but again that means very little. The World Cup draw will take place on Friday with teams placed in pots based on a world ranking calculated on Thursday, but in practice this has little real meaning as the draw is still almost entirely luck, with the pots only serving to spread out the similarly ranked teams.
The only good that could possibly come out of the Dubai debacle will be if Bento and the team can actually learn from what went on and improve on it. On paper, the current Taeguk Warriors roster has as many, if not more, world-class players than any Korean squad before it. But turning that into a world-class team is another story.
There is just over seven months to go before the Qatar World Cup kicks off on Nov. 21. Bento has got some work to do.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]