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Historic Night as South Korea Defeats Iran

South Korea cemented its qualification for the World Cup in Qatar later this year with a 2-0 home victory against Iran in Seoul on Thursday evening.  It was a historic night as the Taeguk Warriors claimed their first triumph over their regional rivals for the first time in eleven years and their first win at home against them since 2005.  Goals in each half from Son Heung-min and Kim Young-gwon, combined with a mostly solid defensive display led to the three points, catapulting Paulo Bento's men to the top of Group A.  KLU's Branko Belan has a closer look at the talking points from the encounter.
(Photo Credit: The Korea Times)

A Tale of Two Halves

Neither side produced much of consequence for the majority of the first half.  In fact, there were no shots on target by either side until the end of the half when the hosts took the lead just before the break.  Korea could have gone behind early due to a near costly defensive error but they were able to manage the situation.  Jung Woo-young played a critical role holding the midfield, ensuring that Iran could not press forward in attack.  Just when it seemed the sides would go into the interval with the score knotted at zero, up stepped Son Heung-min to put his side in the lead as he pressed his luck from distance with a strong hit that Iranian 'keeper Amir Abedzadeh spilled into the back of his own net.

The goal spurred Korea on in the second half as they continued to dominate proceedings, eventually finishing the match with 58 percent of the ball, with five of their thirteen shots finding the target.  Victory was assured in the 64th minute when Lee Jae-sung worked a bit of space down the left and cut back for Hwang Hee-chan, whose ball into the box somehow found its way to Kim Young-gwon, who deftly applied a striker's finish to double the advantage.

Iran would have opportunities late on to cut into the deficit, but Korea managed to hold strong defensively to take a valuable three points and move to the top of the group with one round remaining.  Korea will travel to the United Arab Emirates for their final match on Tuesday while Iran host Lebanon.

Not Exactly a Perfect Display

There is no question that Korea's win over Iran should be celebrated, but it wasn't without difficulty.  They could have gone behind very early in the match thanks to a Kim Min-jae turnover, but Iran was not able to make the most of their opportunity.  Once Kim was substituted in the second half, his replacement Park Ji-su looked out of place, and it was at that particular point in the match when Iran looked a lot more dangerous and could have scored, which would have made for a very difficult end to the encounter.  Paulo Bento will have to have a closer look at defensive reinforcements in the near future; he will need to consider more options as the World Cup draws nearer to round out his final squad.

Hwang Hee-chan helped to secure Korea's second goal. Photo Credit: The Korea Times
Hwang Hee-chan didn't look particularly effective in the first half, but played much better in the second half, getting involved with the second goal.  Hwang Ui-jo could have opened the scoring in the tenth minute, but his headed effort from Son Heung-min's cross finished well wide of the mark.  He didn't play well at all - in fact, he was quite anonymous throughout and was eventually replaced by Cho Gue-sung, who made good on his opportunity in a very important match, despite not adding his name to the scoresheet.

What was most concerning from an attacking perspective was the fact that Korea failed in large part to utilize possession in the final third.  Several forays forward broke down due to ineffective final passes or an inability to distribute the ball into scoring positions.  Possession was wasted on several occasions and that is something that will need to be worked on further as the final tournament approaches.  

Korea needs a finisher up top, a proven goal scorer.  Is it time for Cho Gue-sung to have a bigger role in the team and become the eventual number one striker?  Would Paulo Bento consider a shift in tactics and play two strikers?  Does Korea have the options for such a shift?  These and other questions will be answered in the coming months, but for the moment, there is still some unfinished business to attend to in the coming days.

Standout Performances

Son Heung-min played a critical role in Korea's win, scoring the first goal. Photo Credit: The Korea Times
Son Heung-min delivered in the most important match of this qualifying cycle with his goal at the end of the first half and was a constant threat to Iran whenever he was on the ball.  He became the first player to score in consecutive matches against Iran since Park Ji-sung accomplished the feat back in 2009.  He impacted his will on proceedings and was even praised as a "word class player" by Iran coach Dragan Skočić at the post-match press conference.  This will most definitely boost his profile with the national team, especially if they can follow up the success by closing out the campaign with another victory against the UAE.

Also worthy of mention is Kim Tae-hwan, who proved to be a handful for Iran's defense with his roving runs up and down the right flank over the course of the match.  He made himself available in attacking positions and mostly covered his defensive assignments well.  He handled the environment of playing against a difficult opponent well and it's fair to say he has secured his national team future based on his performance.

The central defense pairing of Kim Min-jae and Kim Young-gwon kept the door shut, with Korea's number four keeping Sardar Azmoun at bay, with the Iranian completely unable to fashion a scoring chance against arguably Korea's most prominent defender.  

Jung Woo-young controlled the midfield well and did well to dictate the pace of Korea's movement over the ninety minutes.  If he can remain healthy and providing his form is consistent, he should be a lock for the starting eleven in Qatar.

An Important Win For Bento

Paulo Bento has led Korea to an undefeated qualifying campaign thus far with one match remaining. Photo Credit: The Korea Times
Paulo Bento was reflective following the match but did well to put things in perspective.

"The goal at the end of the first half was important, but we made several mistakes.  We did a much better job in the second half and made our opponents play more," he said.

He also acknowledged the importance of having fans in the stadium.

"It was important to have fans in the stadium for the match.  They made such a difference.  I hope they were happy with the performance of the players and the outcome of the match," he concluded.

With the win, Bento also became the winningest manager in the history of the South Korean men's national team with his 27th victory, surpassing the previous mark held by German Uli Stielike, who coached Korea from 2014 to 2017.  He also ran his home unbeaten record to twenty matches (16 wins and four draws) since first stepping on the touchline against Costa Rica in 2018.

First Win in Eleven Years

The qualifying match at Seoul World Cup Stadium was played in front of a capacity crowd. Photo Credit: The Korea Times
The win against Iran was the first for Korea in eleven years and the first win at home since 2005, also the last time they scored more than one goal against their Persian rivals.  

The last win came in the quarter-final of the 2011 Asian Cup, where Yoon Bit-garam scored the only goal of the match at the end of the first half of extra time, thanks to a precise assist from Lee Chung-yong.

Curiously enough, neither side managed to score more than one goal in all the matches played between the sides since, but that spell of futility was finally broken in the latest encounter.

Should they be successful on Tuesday night, it could guarantee that a spot in the third pot in the qualifying draw would be in order.  The draw for the final tournament in Qatar takes place on April 1st.

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