|Kim Min-jae of South Korea score a 1-0 goal in during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup group C preliminary round match between South Korea and Kyrgyzstan in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, Friday. EPA-Yonhap|
By John Duerden
The first objective has been achieved by South Korea at the Asian Cup and that is to progress past the group stage. Even better is that the Taegeuk Warriors have got out of Group C with a game to spare. The potentially high-octane clash with China on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi is now looking a lot less stressful as both teams are already in the round of 16.
The 1-0 win over Kyrgyzstan in the city of Al Ain, in the United Arab Emirates, saw another clean sheet four days after the victory over the Philippines by the same scoreline. It is a perfect start for coach Paulo Bento in his first tournament since taking the job in August.
Yet it does not feel perfect. Neither performance against the two teams so far, two teams making their debut in the competition, have suggested that the team has what it takes to win the Asian Cup for the first time since 1960. Korea does not yet look convincing.
On Friday, or early Saturday morning Seoul time, Korea should have won comfortably. Against the Philippines, Korea did not play badly, against a well-organized team that worked so hard that the Southeast Asians were still feeling tired when they faced China four days later, but it was a struggle to create good chances.
That was less of a problem against Kyrgyzstan. Chances were created but were wasted by the likes of Hwang Ui-jo and Hwang Hee-chan. The crossbar also played its part in keeping the scoreline down but poor finishing was a major factor.
The only goal of the game came just before half-time. Kim Min-jae is expected to be Korea's central defender for years to come. The Jeonbuk Motors man missed out on the World Cup due to injury but has returned to the Middle East. He lost his markers at a corner and directed home a fine header into the net for his first international goal. At that time, more goals were expected but never came.
It reminds a little of the 2015 Asian Cup. In Australia, the first two games against Oman and Kuwait ended in victory but the performances were poor, much poorer than now. But then, under coach Uli Stielike, the team improved and ending up going to the final and losing unluckily to the host nation.
Coach Bento will be hoping for similar improvement. It should be pointed out that the country's three best outfield players were missing in Al Ain. Kwon Chang-hoon is out injured. Captain Ki Sung-yueng picked up a slight hamstring injury against the Philippines and the Newcastle United midfielder should be ready for the knockout stage. Star player Son Heung-min will face Manchester United on Sunday in London for Tottenham Hotspur before heading to Abu Dhabi. He is unlikely to play against China.
Son will play in Korea's round of 16 clash though the team will have to wait to see who the opponent is. So far, it has just been about OK but the job has been done.
There is still time to improve but at some point Korea will have to.