KAZAN, Russia -- South Korea's 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign can be summarized with this: one stunning win and two painful losses.
In their 10th World Cup, South Korea had to fight with Sweden, Mexico and Germany in Group F. And as many would have expected, reaching the knockout stage ahead of football powerhouses wasn't an easy mission.
South Korea, led by head coach Shin Tae-yong, entered Russia as certain underdogs in their group. At only No. 57 in the FIFA rankings, South Korea had to fight an uphill battle against defending champions Germany (No. 1), Latin American powerhouses Mexico (No. 15) and European dark horses Sweden (No. 24).
South Korea started the tournament with a 1-0 loss to Sweden at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in Nizhny Novgorod on June 18. Swedish captain Andreas Granqvist scored a penalty kick goal in the 65th minute to hand South Korea their first defeat at the tournament.
This was probably the most painful loss for South Korea at Russia 2018. South Korea had to go "all-in" for their Group F opener since Sweden were thought to be the weakest among their Group F opponents.
Against Sweden, South Korea deployed a 4-3-3 system that put towering striker Kim Shin-wook up front, flanked by Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan. It was a surprising setup considering that Shin's team had been mainly testing 4-4-2 or 3-5-2.
Shin's tactical choice, however, failed miserably as South Korea posted no shots on target, which turned out to be their worst record since their World Cup debut in 1954. Pundits later pointed out South Korea defended too deep, forcing speedy attackers like Son to run more distance when counter attacking.
South Korea also lost left back Park Joo-ho during the match after he sustained a hamstring injury, while trying to control Jang Hyun-soo's stray long pass. Park was replaced by Kim Min-woo, but it was Kim who later brought down Sweden's Viktor Claesson and gave up a penalty kick.
Probably the only consolation for South Korea in this match was goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, who was having an impressive World Cup debut despite his team's loss.
South Korea suffered their second loss of the tournament to Mexico after falling 2-1 at Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don. A penalty kick goal by Carlos Vela following Jang Hyun-soo's handball in the box and Javier Hernandez's neat finish on a counter attack gave Mexicans 2-0 lead. Son Heung-min's left-footed curler cut the deficit to one in the second half stoppage time, but it was too late to make a comeback.
Mexico were the dominant forces coming to the match as they had beaten Germany 1-0 in their Group F opener. With some 30,000 Mexican fans in the 45,000-seat stadium, it was not exaggerating to say that Rostov Arena was El Tri's home.
Even the weather was not helping the South Koreans. Scorching heat in Rostov-on-Don drove the temperature as high as 35 degrees Celsius, about 15 degrees higher than South Korea's base camp in Saint Petersburg.
South Korea used a familiar 4-4-2 setup against Mexico, with attacking midfielder Lee Jae-sung playing next to Son when moving forward. South Korea switched 4-1-4-1 when defending, but the skillful Mexicans knew how to exploit open space and dominate the midfield.
South Korea went physical in this match, committing 24 fouls, and receiving four yellow cards. Mexico, meanwhile, only played seven fouls and saw no one booked.
Another loss for South Korea after this match was the injury of captain Ki Sung-yueng, who has been controlling the team's midfield. He became unavailable for the next match against Germany with a left calf injury.
|In this file photo taken on June 23, South Korea`s Son Heung-min (right) takes a shot during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group F match between South Korea and Mexico at Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Yonhap)|
Even with two straight losses, however, South Korea had not given up their hopes for the round of 16. After 10-man Germany beat Sweden 2-1, thanks to superb free kick goal by Toni Kroos in the 95th minute, South Korea were given an extra life.
A win over Germany and Sweden's loss to Mexico would have forced three teams, except Mexico, to count tiebreakers. South Korea had a slim chance, but they decided to go for it.
It turned out that South Korea produced probably the biggest stunner yet in the tournament by beating Germany 2-0. But Sweden also unexpectedly blanked Mexico 3-0.
Against Germany, South Korea stuck to a counter-attacking strategy with Son upfront, supported by Koo Ja-cheol behind. Jang, who started as a center back in the first two matches, was deployed as defensive midfielder.
Germany were having 70 percent of ball possession throughout the match, but they couldn't finish. Joachim Low's side also poured 26 shots, but only six went to target.
South Korea didn't miss Germany's mental breakdown as the game entered the second half stoppage time. Kim Young-gwon made 1-0 with his close range strike following a corner kick situation. It was first ruled as offside, but following a video review, the referee concluded that South Korea just had scored their second goal of the tournament.
Frustrated Germans, including their goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, moved forward to score a goal. But in the 96th minute, Son sent a knockout punch by putting the ball into the empty net.
South Korea and Germany both finished Group F with one win and two losses, but the Taeguk Warriors had edge on goal difference to finish third. Sweden and Mexico, the two teams that beat South Korea, advanced to the round of 16 from Group F. (Yonhap)