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South Korea Salvage Draw With Costa Rica

South Korea came from behind on Friday night to secure a draw against Costa Rica thanks to Son Heung-min, who found the top corner of the net from a free kick just outside the area with under five minutes to play.  There were some positives in the performance, but there will still be some things to work in the time leading up to the World Cup in Qatar.  KLU's Branko Belan looks back at the key talking points from the match.
(Photo Credit: The Korea Times)

Son Saves South Korea's Blushes

Son Heung-min once again played the role of the man of the hour as he brought South Korea back on level terms with just minutes left in second half regulation time.  He netted expertly from a free kick just outside the penalty area after Costa Rican goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado handled the ball outside the box and was sent off with a straight red card for the offense.  Son made no mistake, biding his time over the ball before firing into the top corner past Patrick Sequeira, who merely watched as the ball sailed past him.

He could have won the match in injury time, but his close range effort was smothered well by the substitute 'keeper.  Overall, he played fairly well, but was responsible for Costa Rica's second goal after a turnover in midfield.  

With the match at 1-1 in the early stages of the second half, he was dispossessed of the ball, prompting the visitors to hit on the counter-attack.  Jewison Bennette, who had scored Costa Rica's goal in the first half, juked a few defenders before laying the ball off on the left.  Anthony Contreras' initial attempt was kept out by Kim Seung-gyu, but Bennette was there to clean up the rebound.

Son continued to press on in hopes of bringing his side level and finally did with a piece of magic when time had just about run out.

The Return of Kim Min-jae

The night marked a return to the national team for Kim Min-jae, who last appeared for his country in the final qualifying match for the World Cup at the end of March, a match that South Korea lost 1-0 to the United Arab Emirates.  He sat out for months due to injury, but his transfer over the summer to Italian side Napoli SSC and subsequent excellent play in the early stages of the Serie A campaign led Paulo Bento to call him back into the side.

His return to international football comes at exactly the right time as the team enters the final phase of preparations for the World Cup in Qatar in November.  While the back line had its share of soft moments against a determined opposing side, the fact that Kim is back in the national team picture after a long layoff is definitely a great sign.  With one more friendly match in midweek, it will give him another chance to reacquaint himself with his teammates.

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What to do About Hwang Ui-jo?

It is no secret that Hwang Ui-jo has had his struggles with the national team.  Against Costa Rica, he had a clear-cut opportunity in the second half to tie the match, but his effort from in close rattled the bar.  It is reminiscent of his recent track record when representing his country.  While he did score a pair of goals in friendlies back in June, he only scored twice in qualification for the coming World Cup, prompting many to question his inability to perform in matches when there is something to play for.

He made a move to Olympiacos over the summer and has only been used sparingly in four matches, registering one assist thus far.  If he is unable to make an impact at club level, how is it possible for him to be an asset to the national team?  South Korea are up against the likes of Uruguay, Ghana, and Portugal in the group stage of this year's World Cup.  Even at thirty years of age, he lacks the pace to beat defenders one on one and Paulo Bento may have to look elsewhere for someone to lead the line.  For Hwang, Qatar could well be his final lifeline - should he come up short again, it may finally be time to move on from him.

Overall Assessment

There was an air of unfamiliarity about Korea's play on the night.  While build up play going forward was mostly good thanks to good ball movement from Jung Woo-young, Kim Young-gwon, and Hwang In-beom, an all-too-familiar scenario presented itself in attack - a lack of clinical finishing in the final third in open play.  Too often, South Korea have looked to create the "perfect" scoring opportunity against opponents, and the same was true against Costa Rica.  One second extra of possession and one pass too many frequently led to loss of possession and allowed Costa Rica opportunities to hit on the counter.

Yoon Jong-gyu did well to create on the right for Hwang Hee-chan's opening goal, but there were defensive lapses in transition, as he struggled to adjust in key situations, and the second goal was a result of defenders' poor marking of Jewison Bennette, who not only orchestrated but finished Costa Rica's second goal.  Even if it was an attempt by Bento to introduce new tactics, it didn't produce the desired results.

"If we're to assume that the players we have here today will go to the World Cup, then they have to be much better than this.  It's never ideal to show these issues at home against a team like Costa Rica," he concluded.

Ball movement needs to be quicker and the placement of passes needs to be more decisive.  The team needs a number one attacker, something it hasn't truly had in a long while.  While Son Heung-min is one of the most talented footballers in the world at the moment, what Korea needs is a true number nine.  

Cho Gue-sung was originally called up for the round of September friendlies but was forced to withdraw due to injury.  The hope is that he will be healthy enough to be able to be available when November rolls around.  He has shown well when given a chance at senior level and is being tipped as the next to lead the line for the Taeguk Warriors.

South Korea next plays Cameroon at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul on Tuesday night

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