South Korean captain Son Heung-min is in action against Qatar in the teams' football friendly match at BSFZ Arena Admiral Stadium in Maria Enzersdorf, Austria, on Tuesday, in this photo provided by the Korea Football Association. (Korea Football Association)
With one key player after another suffering injury and illness, South Korea's trip to Austria for men's football friendly matches seemed doomed before it began.
The team's worst nightmares materialized in the form of a coronavirus outbreak, with six players and two staffers testing positive over the weekend.
Those infections left an already banged-up team decimated.
Considering the circumstances, head coach Paulo Bento did an admirable job guiding South Korea to a win and a loss in two matches, though he also left some tactical question marks.
The 38th-ranked South Korea lost to the 11th-ranked Mexico 3-2 on Saturday, but then defeated the 57th-ranked Qatar on Tuesday.
Prior to these matches, two fullbacks, Hong Chul of Ulsan Hyundai FC and Lee Yong of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, both suffered injuries during their club action. Another fullback, Kim Jin-su of Al-Nassr, tested positive for COVID-19 while playing in Saudi Arabia. And two centerbacks, Kim Min-jae of Beijing Guoan and Park Ji-su of Guangzhou Evergrande, couldn't make it to Austria because their Chinese clubs refused to release them.
The devastating blow came with the news of a half-dozen positive tests, with top goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo, crafty midfielder Kwon Chang-hoon and right fullback Kim Moon-hwan being among the infected.
These cases left Bento with just 19 healthy bodies, enough for an official match during the pandemic but not enough to extract meaningful results from the two contests.
It was unfair to expect any sort of defensive coherence from the remaining players, who wouldn't otherwise have played together or played much at all if not for injuries and COVID-19 infections.
And the lack of chemistry led to struggles with the buildup play from the defensive end.
Against Mexico, Bento used a back-three formation, having had that experiment blow up in his face a few times in a few matches last year. Mexico countered by putting heavy pressure on South Korean ball carriers in their own end, and flustered South Korean players often failed to make that first pass out of trouble. South Korea lost despite scoring the first goal. It was a headscratcher that Bento didn't make an adjustment when it became apparent in the early going that Mexico wouldn't let up their pressure and South Korea had to find other ways to generate offense.
South Korea reverted to using four backs against Qatar, but then the defense still proved porous against Qatar's quick transition attacks. South Korea got thoroughly outplayed for most of the first half after Hwang Hee-chan's first goal 16 seconds into the match, and were lucky to leave with a one-goal victory.
Bento said afterward his players may have suffered a lapse of concentration after the quick first goal, but he didn't think the defense played all that poorly.
"I think we executed our match plan better in the second half than in the first half," the coach said in an interview clip provided by the Korea Football Association (KFA). "Toward the end, we started playing more conservatively and looked for counterattack chances. I think we controlled the match well. We played under some challenging circumstances, and I'd like to thank the players for finishing the trip with a win."
Captain Son Heung-min lived up to his word and ably played the role of the facilitator. He assisted on both goals by forward Hwang Ui-jo on this trip -- one against each of the two opponents. Hwang arrived in Austria not having scored any goal for his French club Bordeaux this season, while Son was tied for the Premier League lead with eight goals for Tottenham Hotspur. Son said his job was to help Hwang score and take that touch back to France, and Hwang will leave Austria feeling better about himself.
"I think these goals were a confidence boost for me, and it was fun playing with the guys again," Hwang said in an interview clip provided by the KFA. "I'll try to keep this up when I rejoin my club." (Yonhap)