|Korea's national football team forward Son Heung-min, center, smiles during the team's recovery training session at the Paju National Football Center in Gyeonggi Province, Oct. 8. Courtesy of the Korea Football Association|
By John Duerden
After three games out of ten in the final stage of qualification, South Korea is still on course for the 2022 World Cup, though there is a long way to go. At the moment at least, fortune is going the way of the Taeguk Warriors. There were two big examples of this atmosphere last Thursday.
The first slice of good luck came with two minutes of the game against Syria remaining; Korea was tied 1-1. It had been a frustrating evening, as the home team had missed many chances.
The game should have been over at half-time, but Hwang Hee-chan, the new talk of the English Premier League after his two goals five days previously, giving the Wolverhampton Wanderers a 2-1 win over Newcastle United, should have won the game. He left his shooting boots in England but thankfully Hwang In-beom opened the scoring early in the second half.
Son Heung-min and others tried to kill the game but failed. There was always a sense that Syria would have a chance to make the Koreans pay for their wastefulness and that came with six minutes remaining. Omar Khribin turned in the area and volleyed smartly into the net. It seemed that the visitor had earned a vital point and put a huge dent in the ambitions of the East Asian team.
Then, somehow, the Syrian defense fell asleep with a minute remaining and left Son unmarked in the area, and the Spurs forward scored to give the 2002 semi-finalist a crucial win.
"We had the control for most of the game. We created enough chances to achieve (a better) result," said coach Paulo Bento. "We should be more effective in the organization in order to close the games earlier."
It means that Korea is in second in Group A with seven points from three games, two behind Iran in first. The top two in the six-team group qualify automatically for Qatar.
This is where the other good fortune comes in. Due to results elsewhere, there is a five-point gap between Korea in second and the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Lebanon. Korea has not consistently played well so far in the group, but thanks to other teams dropping points, it is in a good position. In fact, none of the four teams below have managed a single win.
That cushion may well come in handy for an uncomfortable trip to Tehran on Tuesday to take on Iran, Asia's highest-ranked team at 22 in the world. Korea has lost five and tied two of its previous trips to the Azadi Stadium. This time, the team may have Son and Hwang, but Iran has Mehdi Taremi, a striker with Portuguese giant FC Porto, and Sardar Azmoun, a talented forward with Zenit St. Petersburg, who has been linked with moves to Arsenal and Liverpool in the past.
Avoiding defeat and picking up a point would be a good outcome though coach Bento insists that he has only victory on his mind.
"A draw is just how the game starts. We should play and fight to reach three points," he said. "From the beginning, we're not going to play to draw the match. We're going to play to win the match."
A win would be a huge step towards a tenth successive World Cup, but Korea will need a better performance and some luck against Asia's best team. Fans will be hoping that the luck was not used up last Thursday.