Statistically and aesthetically, there was little question about which was the superior offensive side at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. South Korea outshot Belgium, 18-16, and also held the edge in shots on goal, 12-11. South Korea also attempted more passes than Belgium, 501-421, and was more accurate, with a 73 percent success rate compared to Belgium's 69 percent.
The South Koreans failed to turn these statistical advantages into a win or even a goal, because their polish didn't quite match their guts.
After Belgium went down a man with Steven Defour getting a red card near the end of the first half, South Korea came out firing in the second half. Coach Hong Myung-bo also rolled the dice by replacing defensive midfielder Han Kook-young with forward Lee Keun-ho to start the latter half.
Lee was the lone South Korean goal scorer in the 1-1 draw with Russia last week and has built an international career out of providing spark off the bench. Hong's gamble paid off just six minutes into the second half when Lee's header went slightly high of the intended target.
Yet Lee's miss was a microcosm of the kind of night South Korea had.
The attackers consistently carried the ball deep into the Belgian zone but lacked the delicate touch to finish what they started.
After Lee, it was Son Heung-min who was off the mark with a floating shot from the right side that ended up looking like a harmless cross. Ki Sung-yueng, normally a place kicker, ceded the duty to Son on a corner in the 60th, and then jumped over a crowd for a header that flew over the bar.
Winger Lee Chung-yong moved toward the middle in the second half and found himself with an open look near the box on a few occasions, but his shots either got blocked by the Belgians or rolled weakly out of play.
With a spot in the round of 16 already secured, the Belgians appeared more than willing to settle for a draw and consistently outnumbered South Koreans in their own zone. South Korea also played into Belgium's hands with predictable attacking patterns.
Hong Myung-bo admitted his team failed to find appropriate places to exploit.
"We could have created better chances if we had attacked the flanks," Hong said. "I felt we were trying too hard to penetrate up the middle."
Marc Wilmots, the victorious Belgian coach, said he wanted to "close the midfield and leave the flanks open" when his team began the second half a man short. Wilmots said his players' patience was the difference in the second half.
Kim Dae-gil, an analyst for South Korean cable station KBSN, said the defenders should have joined the attack with more aggression in the second half.
"Even after Belgium lost a man, we had too many men sitting back in our zone," Kim noted. "South Korea should have taken more risks offensively and made life more difficult for Belgium."
Kim Ho-gon, a former national team head coach, said the passing statistics could be misleading because South Korea's outlet passes were often off the mark.
"Since these passes were slow and inaccurate, the team couldn't quite put together fast counterattacks," Kim said. "So even when they intercepted the ball, they couldn't take advantage." (Yonhap)