Aashish Gadhvi analyses the performance of the Red Devils in the recent Asian Cup
The 2007 AFC Asian Cup passed under the eyes of the world’s media almost unnoticed, probably down to David Beckham’s summer transfer to LA Galaxy. Barring the sensational victory by Iraq, which made headline news, the tournament was hard to track down without the aid of the internet on this side of the globe. Neverthless, some hardcore Asian football fans, such as myself, were following it from day one, and it has to be said, this was one of the most exciting Asian Cups in recent memory. Then again, for those in the know, Asian football is always exciting!
The Korean Campaign
Korea had an indifferent run leading up to the Asian Cup. They beat Uzbekistan, Iraq and even Greece in the run in, but also suffered chaotic defeats to Uruguay and Holland on their own home turf. Nevertheless, they entered the tournament as one of the favourites to lift the Asia Cup, something they haven’t done since 1960, but have fallen at the final hurdle on three separate occasions.
Korea were placed in Group D along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and co-hosts (along with Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) Indonesia. On paper it would seem like a mere toss up between who would finish first and second between Korea and the Saudis, but as events transpired, nothing could be further from the truth. In true football fashion, this became the surprise group of death, thanks to Korea being handed a giant-killing defeat at the hands of Bahrain (2-1).
After scrapping out a 1-1 draw with Saudi Arabia, the Koreans expected to hand Bahrain a thrashing in no more than a training match, but a 2-1 defeat to a team who had never previously beaten Korea was nothing short of embarrassing. After starting the game well with a goal from Kim Do-Heon in the 4th minute, Korea then tried to play keep ball and ground out the rest of the match. But grinding out a result is one things that the Koreans aren’t good at, and the defence collapsed spectacularly, handing the Bahrainis 2 goals on a plate, one on the stroke of half time and one 5 minutes from time.
The Koreans needed a victory against Indonesia and had to hope Saudi Arabia would beat Bahrain. One side of the equation worked out, as the Saudis thrashed Bahrain 4-0. Korea however, scraped through another nail biting 1-0 victory against Indonesia. Although this would seem like underachievement, the close score line was down to the fierce fighting spirit of the Indonesians, determined not to go down without a fight in front of 90,000 of their fans.
With Korea scraping through the group, many expected them to bow out at the quarter-finals, as they were pitted against three-time champions Iran, the same team who knocked them out in a 4-3 thriller in the last Asian Cup. But the Koreans failed to score throughout the match and the defence held itself to take the match to penalties which they won 4-2, avenging the defeat of the last tournament.
In the semis they came up against surprise package Iraq, who they had beaten 3-0 in a warm up match prior to the tournament. Incredibly, Korea were again unable to score and the match once again went to penalties, but this time the Koreans failed from the spot and lost 4-3. However this set up a third/fourth place play off against old rivals Japan. Incredibly Korea again failed to score, but also to concede and yet another penalty shootout was on the cards, but a sweet victory for a 10-man Korea was in the offing, as Korea won 6-5 on penalties to finish third place.
The Goal Problem
Sceptics of Asian football would probably pull on the fact that Korea finished third while only scoring three goals in the entire tournament. Although they finished third, this tournament was disappointing for the Koreans, in particular the unpredictable nature of the team throughout. They collapsed defensively against Bahrain, but also couldn’t hit the back of the net through the knockout stages. Many people would probably argue that the absence of Park Ji-sung, Lee Young-pyo, Seol Ki-hyun and Kim Nam-il contributed to the lack of goals, however an attack boasting Lee Chun-soo, Cho Jae-jin and Lee Dong-Gook is surely more than enough to grab some goals? In my opinion there is no excuse for the goal drought. The players available were more than capable of scoring goals.
One of the possible reasons for the goal drought could be because of the tactics. Korea tend to favour playing 4-3-3, but the way the formation is formed turns more into 4-5-1, often leaving Cho Jae-jin up front by himself, which is a recipe for disaster. Although Cho is a talent in the J-Leauge, the ‘miracle man’ has been more than short of miracles in the Korean national team. Some have even argued that he is in the team for his commercial power rather than his football ability. Until he starts scoring some goals, the argument of whether he belongs on a poster or a pitch will continue.
Although Lee Dong-Gook is the type of player who can play by himself, his recovery from injury and his recent move to Middlesbrough may have taken their tole on the man who is second in the list of all-time goal scorers in this competition. The most disappointing player of all however was Lee Chun-soo. A player more unpredictable than the National Lottery, Lee Chun-soo is slowly garnering the ‘lazy-genius’ tag that was once labelled on Lee Dong-Gook. He may claim that he’s better than David Beckham, which in all honestly he probably is, but Lee’s consistency drops and rises like a bungee rope. Lee Chun-soo is very close to being the best Korean player of the lot, even better than Park Ji-sung, which makes it all the more frustrating to see him put in displays like this.
There’s only one Lee Woon-jae
For all the inconsistencies of the new generation, it is refreshing to see the old guard putting in fantastic performances, like Lee Woon-jae, easily Korea’s man of the tournament. At 34, ‘spider-hands’ is still leading the way in putting himself on the line for the sake of the team. Highlights of his guts were the bottle he kept in the penalty shootouts, and his now famous ‘miracle save’ against Japan. Many argued that the Koreans failed simply because they don’t take this tournament that seriously compared to the World Cup, but Lee Woon-jae takes great pride in playing whenever he puts on the Korean shirt, which shows in his displays. However Lee was unable to stop Iraq in the semi-final, who surely deserve the final word. Such was the event of Iraq winning the tournament, that the unity it brought for that brief moment back home made headline news. Even Lee Woon-jae was unable to stop Iraq from winning the tournament. The Gods it seemed, for once, were smiling on Iraq.