South Korea has suffered their worst defeat against Qatar as they failed to end an away drought in the final World Cup qualifying stage.
South Korea fell 3-2 to Qatar in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Tuesday (local time). With only two matches remaining in the final round, South Korea maintained second place in Group A, the last spot for automatic qualification, with 13 points from four wins, a draw and three losses, but failed to extend the gap against No. 3 Uzbekistan.
South Korea's national football team players react after conceding a goal to Qatar in the FIFA World Cup Asian qualifying match at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on June 13, 2017. (Yonhap)
The Uzbeks are just one point back of South Korea. Only the top two nations from each of the two groups in this stage earn automatic World Cup berths, while third-place teams must go through a playoffs. Group leaders Iran have already clinched a World Cup spot with 20 points.
South Korea, ranked No. 43 in the latest FIFA rankings, were considered the favorites against No. 88 Qatar. Prior to the match in Doha, South Korea had a dominant head-to-head record, with five wins, two draws and one loss. South Korea's last defeat was at the 1984 Asian Cup where they suffered a 1-0 loss.
Qatar, however, proved that numbers are just numbers. Left helpless by Hassan Al Haydos, who scored twice and set up another, South Korea surrendered three goals to Qatar for the first time in their history.
This was also the first time South Korea gave up three goals in the final qualifying stage that kicked off in September 2016.
The latest defeat extended South Korea's winless drought away from home. Uli Stielike's side now mark three losses and one draw in away matches in this final round.
Against Qatar, South Korea came up with a 4-1-4-1 formation with Han Kook-young playing as the lone holding midfielder. Veteran center back Kwak Tae-hwi led the four-man defense with Jang Hyun-soo and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' full backs Kim Jin-su and Choi Chul-soon, but it turned out to be far from solid.
Before Al Haydos put Qatar on the board first with his free kick in the 25th, Kwak gave up the ball as he slipped in midfield.
Rodrigo Tabata's threaded pass then found Akram Afif, who was brought down by Choi Chul-soon just outside the box for a free kick. Al Haydos fired his free kick over the South Korean wall, and goalkeeper Kwoun Sun-tae stood frozen watching the ball hit the back of the net.
The South Korean defense again faltered in the 51st as Afif doubled the lead for Qatar. He played a one-two with Al Haydos and was left open as he fired a right-footed shot in the box to beat Kwoun.
South Korea got back on track later as they leveled the score with goals from Ki Sung-yueng and Hwang Hee-chan, but Al Haydos bagged his second goal of the night in the 74th to regain the lead for Qatar, again taking advantage of South Korea's loose defense.
Before Tabata's pass found Al Haydos, South Korean defenders failed to mark the 26-year-old forward as he was left with too much space in front of the box. Kwak chased Al Haydos and even attempted a sliding tackle from behind, but it was too late to stop Al Haydos' finish with his left foot.
On offense, South Korea did end their away goalless streak but still weren't impressive. Although their attacking ace Son Heung-min was out of the match after just 30 minutes, South Korea did the best they could, firing 16 shots with six on target.
South Korea were better than Qatar in almost all attacking categories, including ball possession and accuracy of passes, but the one thing they lacked was delicate finishing around the net.
Qatar were efficient as they produced three goals on four shots on target.
South Korea will next host Iran on Aug. 31 before facing Uzbekistan on the road five days later. The players said they need to learn from the defeat and fix their problems.
"We need to find our shortcomings and things that we need to improve," South Korean captain Ki said. "It's not over because we still have two matches remaining, and we must win those two matches."
Lee Keun-ho, who came on for the injured Son, said the players need to be more focused and desperate on the pitch.
"We are the players who represent the country, so we need to take more responsibility," he said. "If we play loose, we can't guarantee that this kind of result will not happen in the future." (Yonhap)