The Korea Herald


Minus top defender, S. Korea looking to continue magical ride vs. Jordan in semifinals

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 4, 2024 - 18:56

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Son Heung-min (Yonhap) Son Heung-min (Yonhap)

No matter how you slice it, South Korea's run to the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar, featuring late equalizers and a shootout win, has been an exhilarating one, certainly not for the faint-hearted.

After staving off elimination with last-gasp goals in back-to-back matches, the Taegeuk Warriors will try to extend their magical run toward their first Asian Cup title since 1960, when they take on Jordan in the semifinals this week.

South Korea, ranked 23rd, and Jordan, world No. 87, will meet for the second time in this tournament at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, when it will be midnight Wednesday in South Korea.

South Korea will be without center back Kim Min-jae. The Bayern Munich defender picked up his second yellow card of the tournament late in the quarterfinals against Australia and thus received an automatic suspension for the semifinals.

Jordan have lost two players for the semifinals due to two yellow cards: defender Salem Al-Ajain and forward Ali Olwan.

The two countries first met during the group stage. On Jan. 20, Jordan built a 2-1 lead at halftime and stayed in front until Yazan Al-Arab was charged with an own goal during second-half stoppage time. South Korea's skipper, Son Heung-min, admitted afterward his team was fortunate to walk away with that point.

South Korea struggled to get much going on offense against the physical and stout Jordan defense. And South Korean defenders, especially on the flanks, looked flustered at times trying to handle speedy opposing attackers.

Both teams have since gone through a roller coaster ride.

South Korea played an even worse game in their group finale, being held to a 3-3 draw against lowly Malaysia after allowing a late equalizer. Then in the round of 16 against Saudi Arabia, South Korea were minutes away from having their title dreams crash and burn, and then Cho Gue-sung headed home a late equalizer to send the match into extras. South Korea prevailed on penalties 4-2.

More last-minute magic helped South Korea snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Australia in the quarterfinals Friday. Son drew a penalty during second-half stoppage time, and Hwang Hee-chan converted the kick to tie the score at 1-1. Then in extra time, Hwang set up a free kick just outside the box, and then Son scored a cracking curler for the eventual 2-1 win.

After nearly upsetting South Korea, Jordan took a 1-0 loss to Bahrain in their final group match to finish third in Group E. In the round of 16, they rallied past Iraq 3-2 with two goals during second-half added time, after Iraq's second goal scorer, Aymen Hussein, was sent off for excessive celebration of his goal.

Jordan then needed an own goal by Tajikistan to win their quarterfinal match 1-0 on Friday.

Though Kim Min-jae is easily South Korea's best defender, his individual brilliance hasn't resulted in overall team success on the defensive end. South Korea have conceded eight goals in five matches so far.

But they have been outscoring their problems so far and have been doing so in dramatic style. They have scored three goals and had one opposition own goal during second-half stoppage time to either take a lead or tie the score.

"I don't want to leave it so late all the time, believe me," Klinsmann said after the Australia match. "I would be happy to get it done earlier, but it is maybe our story in this tournament to leave it late."

It will bear watching if Kim's absence will force Klinsmann to alter his formation or if the coach will simply plug that hole with one of his several center backs on the squad.

Behind the defense, goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, thrust into the lead role after the first-choice keeper, Kim Seung-gyu, suffered a tournament-ending knee injury after the Bahrain win, has settled in nicely. After stopping two penalties against Saudi Arabia, Jo kept South Korea in the game with some crucial saves in the second half against Australia.

On the offensive end, fatigue could be an issue for South Korea's two most dangerous weapons.

Son has not missed a minute of action so far, including 240-plus minutes worth of football over the past two matches in a four-day span. Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain had also played every minute until being subbed out late in the Australia match.

The two are tied for the team lead with three goals and have done admirable work trying to create chances for themselves and their teammates. (Yonhap)