CUIABA, Brazil ― South Korea’s meticulous World Cup preparations paid off enough to stop its losing streak, as the Taeguk Warriors reached a 1-1 draw with Russia on Tuesday in the final opening group match in Brazil.
Korean forward Lee Keun-ho scored the opening goal in the 68th minute, followed by a dramatic equalizer by Russia’s Aleksandr Kerzhakov just six minutes later.
The draw stopped Korea’s painful pre-World Cup slide after being routed by Tunisia 1-0 and Ghana 4-0. It also marked Korea’s ninth appearance at the World Cup and fourth straight opener without a loss, and Russia’s return to the global soccer tournament after 12 years.
“In such a tournament, the first match is always the most difficult, and so there’s a lot of pressure. (Considering) that, I think our players did very well,” coach Hong Myung-bo said after the match, adding that the players performed “intelligently” both tactically and physically.
“We were winning and we allowed an equalizer, so in a way we would have of course preferred to have won. But it was the first match and I am very happy and satisfied with the performance of my players.”
After a cautious first half of short passes and few risks by both sides, both teams came back to the pitch after half time with renewed aggression. Russian midfielder Victor Fayzulin headed straight for a strike within moments of the restart, but goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong kept him out.
Minutes later, Korean captain Koo Ja-cheol returned the offensive with a strong shot on goal, followed soon after by a strike by Ki Seung-yueng and a direct kick by Kim Young-gwon that tested Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who was shaky in his save.
Then forward Lee, who came on as a second-half substitute for Park Chu-young, found a clearing behind a lone defender and hit a shot from distance that Akinfeev failed to hold on to.
Russia rushed to equalize the score. Just a few minutes after entering the field, substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov took advantage of a scramble in the penalty area, securing Russia’s equalizer in the 74th minute while Korea’s keeper Jung was still on the ground.
The Korean squad had spent its past two training camps focusing narrowly on the Russia opener by analyzing every opponent, preparing for the team’s famous counterattacks, scrutinizing its own faults in recent defeats and getting everyone on the same page to mend its brittle defense.
“We fully studied the Russian team. We also studied the play style of the coach, and so I think that our players played very intelligently,” said coach Hong. “In the second half there were a few dangerous situations because all of the Russian players became the defense, we prepared for that.
“So we took the ball away from them, and the counterattack, that is something that the Russian team often does and so we know that often happens, and so that’s what we prepared for.”
Their newfound organization since their last two defeats was apparent throughout the match, with the squad exhibiting more conscious spacing, cleaner passes and, perhaps their biggest concern lately, a cohesive back line.
“Great ball possession, great movement, that’s their style of play, I think,” said Russian coach Fabio Capello of the opponents. “I know that they were very quick and very fast and pressing and I saw that in the end.”
However, Capello also pointed out that while tactically strong in this match, the team’s physical performance seemed to peter out near the end, whereas his players’ energy hit a “crescendo.” A few players, including captain Lee Keun-ho and defender Hong Jeong-ho had to stop throughout the second half to sort out leg cramps. Hong eventually had to be stretchered off.
Coach Hong, for his part, admitted that the Russian team was fast and applied a lot of pressure. He added that because defender Hong hadn’t trained as much as they would have liked, his presence on the field limited their strength. The defender was on the mend from a bruised ankle sustained during Korea’s final home friendly against Tunisia last month.
“Since he was on the field we didn’t have a full attack team, so that was something that we regretted,” he said.
Star midfielder Son Heung-min, who shone with long-shot attempts and ease of control in both halves to be named Man of the Match, said that during practice, players discussed their weaknesses, and were satisfied with the defense’s performance during the match.
“From today’s experience, I think we got off on the right foot,” he said. “The game against Algeria is a very important game for us and if we play the game like we did today, I am pretty sure we will win.”
The victory gave Russia and Korea each one point in Group H, trailing Belgium with three.
Belgium toppled Algeria 2-1 earlier in the day to get a head start in the group standings. The Fennec Foxes’ Sofiane Feghouli converted a penalty in the first half before the Red Devils’ Kevin de Bruyne equalized in the second and Dries Mertens secured the win.
Korea returns to its base camp in Foz do Iguacu on Wednesday morning to prepare for its second round, facing Algeria in Porto Alegre on June 22. Meanwhile, Belgium and Russia will go head to head in Rio de Janeiro.
The third and final round of the group stage commences on June 26.
By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent
Grace Cho in Seoul contributed to this article. -Ed.