Coming off a spirited 1-1 draw against Russia to open Group H action at the World Cup in Brazil, South Korea will eye its first victory when it takes on Algeria on Sunday.
|Algeria's Sofiane Feghouli, right, celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the group H World Cup soccer match between Belgium and Algeria at the Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)|
The kickoff between the 57th-ranked South Korea and the 22nd-ranked Algeria will be at 4 p.m. at Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, in the southeastern part of Brazil. It's about 600 kilometers east of the South Korean base camp in Foz do Iguacu.
Having secured one point, a win over Algeria for three more points would bring South Korea on the verge of a spot in the round of 16 here, with a group finale against the heavily favored Belgium scheduled next week.
South Korea had lost two consecutive friendlies before the World Cup without scoring a goal, and the prospects of generating any offense, let alone winning a match, seemed slim.
Yet South Korea managed to score first against Russia -- albeit on a fluke play when the usually reliable goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev mishandled an innocuous shot by Lee Keun-ho. The lead last only six minutes, but the South Koreans said afterward the match was a huge boost to their collective confidence.
South Korea held an edge over Russia in ball possession and passing accuracy but failed to parlay that into more shots on goal.
Winger Son Heung-min had a pair of open looks at the net near the box but airmailed his shots. He was still named the Man of the Match for his effort, but he later lamented his big misses, saying South Korea could have won the match had he been on target.
Captain Koo Ja-cheol, starting as a shadow striker, was an active presence on offense and covered the most ground among all South Korean attacking players. He needs to stay as energetic against Algeria, which proved that it was capable of playing a lockdown defense despite losing to Belgium 2-1 earlier.
Lee, the goal scorer, was at his usual pesky self when he came off the bench just before the hour mark. Before the tournament, Lee said he would embrace his role as a reserve forward and he would go full speed no matter how few minutes of action he'd get. Against Russia, Lee mostly lived up to his word.
Head coach Hong Myung-bo had long stressed the importance of playing better defense, in the wake of his team's 4-0 loss to Ghana in Miami just days before the start of the World Cup.
For the most part, the South Koreans stood their ground against Russia, but the defensive backs were still caught out of position on more than a few occasions, allowing crafty attackers to sneak in behind them.
On the Russian scoring play, South Korea once again suffered a critical lapse of concentration.
Aleksandr Kerzhakov scored in a mad scramble near the Korean net, after defender Kim Young-gwon's clearing attempt went off a Russian player's body and landed near Kerzhakov. As the Russian forward pounced on the loose ball, several South Korean players raised their hands and looked toward an assistant referee for an offside call, instead of trying to contain Kerzhakov.
In the process, the South Koreans committed a cardinal sin in sports: they stopped playing before officials halted action.
South Korean players could ill afford a similar mental error against Algeria, a team of speedy and skillful players who could give defenders fits.
Sofiane Feghouli, the team's primary offensive weapon, drew a penalty against Belgium in the first half and converted it himself to give Algeria an early 1-0 lead. Up front, El Arabi Soudani and Nabil Bentaleb also looked sharp.
Three South Korean players were booked against Russia and another yellow for them against Algeria will mean an automatic suspension in the next match. Midfielders Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min and forward Koo Ja-cheol were the penalized players.
Ki, in particular, is known for his aggressive play as the primary holding midfielder, and his vision and poise make him as irreplaceable as anyone on the squad. His absence could deal a fatal blow to South Korea's hopes of advancing further. Ki's backup, Ha Dae-sung, has been ruled out of the Algerian match with a sprained ligament in his left foot and remains a question mark for the finale against Belgium, making it even more important for Ki to stay out of trouble.
South Korea will also try to buck the trend of never having won the second match in the group stage in any of its eight previous World Cup appearances.
South Korea has a record of four draws and four losses in the second group matches. The country has suffered some ignominious defeats in those matches, including the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Netherlands in 1998 and a 7-0 loss to Turkey in 1954. (Yonhap)