Son Heung-min of South Korea (C) chases the ball against Turkmenistan during the teams' Group H match in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, on Saturday. (Yonhap)
That's more like it.
That South Korea defeated Turkmenistan 5-0 in their World Cup qualifying match on Saturday wasn't a surprise in itself. The biggest takeaway is that South Korea, in addition to beating the team they were supposed to beat, looked good doing it.
And that hadn't always been the case with the underachieving national team in recent matches.
The win at Goyang Stadium in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, kept South Korea at the top of Group H in the second round of the Asian qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They will play Sri Lanka and Lebanon to wrap up the second round.
South Korea entered this month under fire from their famously passionate fan base, still infuriated over the country's 3-0 loss to Japan in March. The score was bad enough, and South Korea gave one of their most lethargic efforts in recent memory. That's a cardinal sin against Japan, the country's bitterest sporting rival.
Head coach Paulo Bento was also in the hot seat, with his perceived lack of tactical flexibility leading to growing calls for his dismissal.
One win over a clearly overmatched opponent won't change the narrative overnight, but it's a start.
South Korea spent the vast majority of Saturday's match in the offensive zone. Turkmenistan crowded their box and tried to outnumber South Koreans there.
In past matches, South Korea had experienced trouble breaking down similarly constructed defensive walls. Earlier in the second round, South Korea were held to scoreless draws by North Korea and Lebanon, and managed only a 2-0 victory over the same Turkmenistan team in September 2019.
On this night, South Koreans played with more patience and composure while flashing their superior skills and making passes in tight spaces with confidence. They were relentless, even as Turkmen goalkeeper, Rasul Charyyev, stood on his head in the first half to keep it only a 2-0 match.
Goals mostly came on great passing plays. For the opening marker, it was defender Hong Chul's picture-perfect pass setting up Hwang Ui-ho's header. For his second goal of the match in the 72nd minute, Hwang was the beneficiary of some great individual efforts by Son Heung-min and Kwon Chang-hoon in the offensive zone.
Late in the first half, Nam Tae-hee was the "Johnny on the spot," poking home a rebound after Hwang set up Kwon for a low, hard shot.
Bento, usually a hard-to-please bench boss, said he was "extremely satisfied" with the result.
"We executed everything that we practiced during the week," he said. "I am especially happy for my players. Scoring five goals isn't easy to do against any team."
Son, the national team captain and Tottenham Hotspur star, didn't join the goal-scoring fest, but he lived up to his word while setting up play after play. In his prematch interview Thursday, Son said he wanted to help his teammates score goals rather than finding the back of the net himself. As the country's most gifted offensive player, Son consistently drew extra attention of opposing defenders, which created space for other attackers that Son smartly exploited.
Bento didn't single out any player for praise, be it Son or centerback Kim Young-gwon, who frequently jumped in on offense and scored a second-half goal.
"The entire team had a great match. And when the team does well, it will highlight individual efforts, too," Bento said. "As good as we were on offense, we also did a great job with our transition defense. Whenever we lost possession, we were quick to foil their counterattack opportunities."
Hwang, who scored a goal in each half, said the team knew the importance of these qualifiers, and it showed on the pitch on Saturday.
"We've been working really hard, and I think we were so much better in this match than in other matches, in terms of our skills and mental toughness," Hwang said. "But the second round isn't over yet. The next two matches are even more important. We got off to a good start here and we have to maintain this momentum going forward." (Yonhap)