Korea’s AFC Under 23 Championship Review

AFC-u23-Asian-cup-2016-218x150

 

This past weekend brought down the curtain on the AFC Under 23 Championship. It was yet again a tournament of highs and ‘could have beens’ that were unfortunately brought crashing down to Earth by the now all too familiar  under-achieving that has seemed to plague Korean national teams since those dizzy heights of 2002. In 2014 it was the abysmal World Cup campaign in Brazil which led to Hong Myung Bo resigning and candy stores the length and breadth of the country selling out. In 2015 it was a ‘hard luck’ story in Australia as Korea lost in the final of the Asian Cup to the hosts after snatching a last-gasp equalizer to take it to extra-time. 2016 would see the “rising stars” given their chance to shine and show that they could be a generation capable of living up to the lofty expectations of a country which only ever really seems interested in their national team the moment just before they falter and fail.

Group Stages

Korea were drawn in Group C along with Iraq, Uzbekistan and Yemen and were hotly tipped to emerge unscathed from the group. A 2-1 victory in the opening game against Uzbekistan in which Pohang’s Moon Chang Jin would bag himself a brace was followed by a 5-0 mauling of Yemen. That match would see Kwon Chang Hoon continue his good form of last season with Suwon Bluewings as he fired Korea into a 3-0 lead by half-time. Second half goals form Ryu Seung Woo (Bayer Leverkusen) and Kim Seung Jin (Ulsan) would be the icing on the cake. Korea at this point were living up to their pre-tournament billing as one of the favourites and in Moon and Kwon had two players who looked hungry. The final match of Group C would be against Iraq to decide who topped the table. Korea led for most of the match through a Kim Hyun (Jeju United) strike but as has been all too common of late that result would be snatched from them at the death as Iraq grabbed an equalizer. It wouldn’t alter the final standings in any way as that Yemen result had made sure that Korea would have the better goal difference but it did cast some doubt on the young team’s ability to see out a result.

Kwon Chang Yoon celebrates his hat-trick.
Kwon Chang Yoon celebrates his hat-trick.

 

The Quarter-Final

A rather surprising goalless draw with Jordan had seen the Olyroos (I really hate the names Australians give to all their sporting teams) eliminated and Korea would instead face Jordan in the Quarter-finals who on paper really seemed the easiest of the two opponents. And for 45 mins is looked exactly like the pundits had called this one correct. Korea bossed the midfield and held a quite incredible 62% of possession to match their 1-0 lead when the HT whistle sounded, that first half goal coming courtesy off Moon Chang Jin again. The second half started much as how the previous 45 had gone and Korea really should have wrapped the game up easily. Unfortunately Jordan had other ideas and quite like the drunk who wakes up on the subway only to be spurred into a second wind they suddenly realized the match wasn’t over. This may have had something to do with the increasingly unstable display of Gu Sung Yun who was beginning to resemble said subway drunk the more the match went on. Suddenly where there had been steel in the middle of the park there were gaps, where passes had been sprayed across the pitch now they couldn’t find a teammate with a satnav. It was becoming all too familiar a scene as the match had a draw and extra time written all over it. It’s in games like this that you need a hero and Korea soon found one in the shape of the Iranian referee. A rather speculative overhead kick had fallen to a Jordanian teammate 6 yards out and he was left with the simplest of finishes. As the players turned away in celebration and we headed for another 30 mins the referee blew his whistle and ruled offside. On first viewing it was a poor call on replays it was criminal. There was no doubt the goal should have stood and the decision seemed to knock the stuffing out of Jordan. The match was played out and Korea finished the victors and booked a place in the semi-final against hosts Qatar but again as with the Iraq match chinks were beginning to show in their armour.

The Jordan players protest the offside call.
The Jordan players protest the offside call.

The Semi-Final

The victory over Jordan had set up a match against Qatar who had sent North Korea packing at the QF stage. As the AFC had decided to introduce Olympic qualification for the top 3 finishing teams it added an extra dimension as victory would ensure the chance to represent your country in Rio and that all important (and often more important) chance to gain exemption from military service. By the time the game kicked off both teams knew that Japan awaited them in the final and is there really any other motivation that a Korean team needs. The match would finish 3-1 to Korea and “haniljeon” (Korea v Japan) would indeed be on the menu. That scoreline would suggest that Korea had steadied the ship and were back on course to lift the trophy but that really wasn’t quite the case. Once again they would take the lead, Ryu Seung Woo with the opener, only to throw it away. 1-1 with only a few minutes plus injury time left on the clock it looked like both teams were heading towards extra time and ultimately the lottery of a penalty shootout but Kwon Chang Hoon and Moon Chang Jin had other ideas as first Kwon (89) and then Moon (90+2) scored to put Korea in the final and ultimately on ‘The Road To Rio”. It was a crazy final few minutes and the scenes at FT summed up just how much it meant to the players. They were in the final, they were on their way to Rio and they had the chance to beat Japan to win the tournament.

The Final

Both teams had already achieved their minimum goal which was to qualify for this year’s Olympic Games in Rio and as important as that was the fact that it was your greatest rivals that stood in your way of being named Champions of Asia gave the match more than just a little spice. Back when I was growing up watching football in Glasgow a common catchphrase of the time was “football is a game of two halves” and the 2016 AFC U23 final was exactly that and then some. I managed to secure one of those unlikeliest of items, a free-pass to watch football on a Saturday night. And so it was with a few cold ones that I sat down to watch what I hoped would be an epic match or least just a Korea win. The first point of note was that Japan weren’t wearing their traditional blue shirts and had opted for their second colours. It might have been this very decision which led to them looking like a pale shadow of the team that had won all five of their matches in the tournament conceding only 2 goals in the process. Again, like the Jordan match, Korea looked the hungrier of the two sides and it was no real surprise when they took the lead and no surprise that it was than man Kwon again. Sure the goal was a tad fortuitous as the ball took a deflection on its way passed the keeper but they were the better team. HT came and went, as did the Merrydown Cider I had purchased, and as I was choosing between terrible Korean beer or worse Korean beer the second half started. It took all of two minutes for Korea to double their lead as Jin Seong Uk looked to have put the match beyond Japan with a quite simply beautiful turn and shot in the box which left the Japanese keeper flat-footed.  Korea continued to attack sensing that Japan were there for the taking but somehow passed up chance after chance with Kwon missing an easy header among them.

Moon Chang Jin
Moon Chang Jin

It was all going according to plan for Shin Tae Yong and his team but as is often the case in football that is when the carpet is pulled from under your feet. It all started with a substitution as Sanfreece Hiroshima starlet Takuma Asano was brought on with half an hour left on the clock. To say the switch was a pivotal moment is an understatement. Within six minutes of him coming on he had pulled a goal back with a clinical finish, chipping over the keeper after being put through 1-on-1. If that was the beginning of a crack then what came next truly shattered the team. Straight from kick-off Japan won the ball and raced down the left, and with one flash of a head from an inch-perfect cross and it was 2-2. It had taken Japan all of 90 secs to not just claw the match back but put themselves firmly in the driving seat.

That second goal seemed to suck all the confidence out of Korea and it didn’t really come as a surprise when Japan took the lead with ten minutes to go. And of course who else would it be but Asano again. Korea had been on the attack when they lost the ball which was worked through to Asano on the edge of the box and, again, 1-on-1 with the keeper he made no mistake. 3-2 Japan and it was all over and ultimately the age-old problem of Korea being unable to kill teams off would yet again lead them to defeat and disappointment.

Takuma Asano Sinks Korea.
Takuma Asano Sinks Korea.

And so the tournament ended with an apologetic bow and now thoughts turn to the summer and to Rio. Losing to your rivals is never good, being Scottish I know the feeling only too well, but the manner in which this latest defeat was delivered was extra tough to take. But it shouldn’t all be doom and gloom.  The performances of Kwon Chang Hoon and Moon Chang Jin were highlights and given that Son Heung Min will almost certainly be added to the squad for Rio they might just be in with a chance of coming home with a medal.

By @kleague_kilt

Advertisements

Don’t Cha wish your right back was Cha Duri, Don’t Cha?

“Don’t Cha wish your right back was Cha Duri, Don’t Cha?”

Cha Duri

It was a song sung on the terraces of Celtic Park during Cha’s time at Celtic as much in jest as in praise but I think on the 119th minute mark on Thursday most Korean’s would have been excused for thinking exactly that. One lung-bursting run accompanied by his trademark determination and Cha Duri was the toast of Koreans (and Korean fans) the world over.

Overlooked by the fellow ‘legend’ Hong Myung Bo for Brazil 2014, Cha found himself back in contention under new man Uli Stielike. After a consistent season for FC Seoul he merited one last chance to showcase himself on the main stage. I’ve commented previously on this blog about Cha’s recent performances and I was a little surprised that he didn’t make the starting lineup for the match against Uzbekistan although maybe Stielike played this one perfectly, I’m sure he will claim exactly that.

The match against Uzbekistan was as entertaining a 0-0 as you can expect to see. Before the match a friend asked me what I thought the score would be and I predicted “tight with Uzbekistan winning in extra time”, I was glad to be only half right. With 70 minutes gone and extra time already looking as certain as Son Heung Min needing 10 chances to put away one, Stielike brought on Cha. Over his career Cha has had many nicknames, in Germany he was The Cha-minator, in Scotland The Human Weapon, granted not the most flattering of nicknames, but it does kind of sum Cha up. Renowned for his limitless energy he is exactly the player you want to bring on when extra-time beckons.

As Cha was entering the field I jokingly tweeted that if he was to win the match for Korea then the Soju was on me. Definitely if he wins the final for them I will be in a pojangmacha in Yeouido with some spare seats and a countless supply of green bottles. As we entered extra time both teams had chances to finish the match in regular time but symptomatic of the previous 85 mins or so those chances were spurned. Just as the Twitterati were predicting penalties Kim Jin Su put in a cross and there was Son to head the ball over the line. It really was about his 5th or 6th chance and he was becoming both frustrated on the pitch and frustrating to watch from off it.

Son’s goal seemed to hit Uzbekistan hard and although they rallied they looked like their confidence and belief was dripping away. As Cha picked up a ball inside his own half Twitter was flooded with “hope we can hold on” tweets, nobody expected what happened next, well nobody except The Cha-minator himself. It felt like he beat every Uzbek player on the field, in reality it was three. He skipped past their challenges like they were were ajussis in my way when last orders are called. His head down he powered forward. Now this is where we expect it to all go wrong, sure he can run like Forrest Gump but is there going to be an end product? The answer? Simply but emphatically YES. With a quick look up he spotted Son on his own and put the perfect pass into his path. All Son had to do was control it and put it away, of course he took two touches and almost blew the chance but there was no doubting the class of the finish. Powerful and high, the keeper had no chance. And that was it! 2-0, Uzbek hearts broken and Korea march onwards and upwards.

I believe as much as every team needs the composure of a Ki, the relative steadiness of a Kim in goals they also need the passion of a Cha. If there is one thing the current Korean team lacks compared to those of 2002 it is passion. I’m not saying they are not patriotic, by no means at all, but there is a certain spark that they lack, that they need. Cha brings that to the table and is exactly the reason why we can ask “Don’t cha wish your right back was Cha Du ri?”

South Korea’s Asian Cup So Far

number 3

 

They’ve played 3 games, they’ve won all 3 and scored 3 goals so here are 3 observations from Korea’s Group A exploits.

Uli chose the right captain. 

A lot of the talk before the tournament began was who Uli Stielike would chose as captain. The two names on most lips were Ki Sung Yeung and Koo Ja Cheol. Ki had captained the team in recent friendlies and I think for most seemed the more logical choice. The biggest problem with Ki was undoubtedly his maturity at times and ultimately his ability to do something stupid on the pitch, I’m sure a lot of us still remember his ‘monkey’ taunt at Japan 4 yrs ago. Koo on the other hand was maybe the more reliable of the two players in terms of temperament but did he command the respect of the dressing room in the same manner as Ki?  In the end Stielike went with Ki and I think his decision has been 100% validated. As well as playing every minute so far for this tournament, Ki has led by example on the pitch. His ability to control the tempo of the game has increased since his days in the hoops of Celtic. He was then a calm and dependable figure but since his move to Swansea he has added an extra dimension to this side of his game. He has been by far the main man on the pitch for the KNT and with the loss of Koo and Lee and Son’s poor form Ki is essential to any chance of success they may have.

Cha Du Ri still has it. 

I first remember seeing Cha during the 2002 World Cup. He, like most of that squad, epitomized the KNT’s campaign that year as he chased every ball and harried every opponent. Over the years he has probably become more famous for his energy and passion than his actual skill. In 2010 I stood in Hangang Park watching him play during the World Cup and thought his days were numbered, he was outclassed time and time again by Argentina and Nigeria and looked like his best days were far behind him. Fast forward a month and he was being linked with my team Celtic. I was not the happiest of shoppers at this point as I firmly believed he was only being signed for marketing reasons and it wasn’t long until the infamous LG refrigerator advert with him and Ki was becoming the source of many a rival Scottish fan’s joke. In fairness Cha had a decent enough time at Celtic and will probably be remembered most for inspiring a 2-0 victory over St. Johnstone that kept our title hopes alive, albeit only for about 2 weeks. His goal celebration of ripping off his shirt and sliding along the icy pitch will remain an iconic image from his time there, although unfortunately so will his wide smile after he scored a ridiculous own goal away to Rennes in the Europa League the next season. When Cha left Celtic I never thought I’d be commenting on him again but it wasn’t too long until he was in the K-League playing for FC Seoul. He has been impressive in the K-League, so much so that some wondered why he was left out of last year’s World Cup squad. He made the K-League 2014 Team of the Year and has enjoyed a comeback in the national team under Stielike. Seen by many as a bit player at the Asian Cup he seized his chance after Lee Chung Yong’s injury and has justified his inclusion. An excellent assist against Kuwait earned him a spot in the official Round 2 Team of the round. Dropped against Australia it will be interesting to see if he reclaims his spot on Thursday for the Uzbekistan QF.

I couldn’t not link this!!

Will Son step up to the plate. 

It feels that in every tournament Korea seems to have a ‘shining light’, the one player that will lead them to glory and riches. For years it was Park Ji Sung, then Park Chu Young took over his mantle and now the task seems to have fallen to Son Heung Min. It can’t be easy carrying the lofty expectations of a nation but even more so now with Koo Ja Cheol ruled out of the tournament that is where Son finds himself. A quick look at his stats would show that he’s not exactly been prolific for club and country but then he is only 22. Even though Korea managed to get maximum points from their Group A matches the 1-0 scorelines only paper over the cracks of what is a pretty frail strike-force. Just like in Brazil this team frustrates in the last third, no more obvious than the last minute against Australia when left 2 on 1 they managed to pass up the opportunity to put the game to bed. This current Korean team do create chances but a combination of  weak finishing and poor decision-making prevents them from running up a scoreline to match their possession stats.  I imagine that Son will be the spearhead of most Korean forays forward over the rest of the tournament,  he will be the man everyone will be looking at to put the ball in the back of the net. Whether he is capable of doing so will be answered soon enough.

 

By @Seoulbhoy