Thursday, November 20, 2008

Korea Break Saudi Jinx In Style

Park Chu-young celebrates his late goal
It wasn’t the prettiest and it wasn’t without controversy but South Korea’s 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia in qualification for the 2010 World Cup in Riyadh was one of the team’s best results in years and a seventh successive appearance at the World Cup looks a good deal closer.

It had been 19 long years since the Taeguk Warriors last defeated the Sons of the Desert in a competitive match but late goals from Lee Keun-ho, his fifth in three games for the national team, and Park Chu-young in the early hours of Thursday morning Korean Time, gave the visitors the three points.

That haul puts Korea two points clear at the top of Group Two after three matches. Iran has five, two less than the leaders, while Saudi Arabia and North Korea each have four. UAE sits in last place with a solitary point.

The win at the home of one of Korea’s biggest rivals in the battle to reach the World Cup is a big step in the direction of South Africa. It also means that if Korea can avoid defeat in Tehran in the next match in February, it will be in first place at the halfway stage with three of the four remaining games to be played at home. The top two in the group automatically qualify.

That is far in the future however and for the next few days at least, coach Huh Jung-moo can bask in the victory. It wasn’t an easy one but few expected it to be. Saudi Arabia had a great chance to score in the opening minutes but twice Lee Young-pyo, playing his 100th game in the red shirt, blocked on the goal-line.

Korea came back into the match and enjoyed lots of possession without doing too much with it. The match was finely-poised but the turning point came just before the hour.

Saudi striker Naif Hazizi burst into the Korean penalty area. Goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae came out feet-first and suddenly Hazizi was sprawling on the floor. As the Singaporean referee ran forward, Korean hearts were in mouths but instead of pointing to the penalty spot, he gave the attacker a second yellow card for diving and ejected him from proceedings.

It took a while for Korea to take advantage of their advantage but 13 minutes from the end, good work from captain Park Ji-sung gave Lee keun-ho the opportunity to break the deadlock.

There was still work to do and some nervous moments at the end largely due to the introduction of skilful striker Malek Maaz but with just seconds left on the clock, Korean substitute Park Chu-young curled a shot into the net from outside the area to seal the win.

It was a happy Huh Jung-moo who talked to reporters after the game.

“We didn’t look too good in the first half but we improved as the game progressed. We overcame a few crises early in the game and started to impose our will on the game,” he said.

“To be honest, I was a little worried about how the K-League players would perform on a big international stage like this but it is through these tough matches that they grow in confidence. It is through these matches that we become stronger as a team.”

Huh admitted that his opposite number, Nasser Al Johar, was not too happy with the referee.

“The Saudi coach expressed his dissatisfaction with the red card and penalty decision but we have to respect the referee’s decision,” said Huh.

Al Johar found that hard to do. “I really regret the referee’s decision,” he said after the match. “That decision was the reason we lost the game.”

Copyright: John Duerden & Soccerphile.com

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