January 15 – Continental heavyweights South Korea breezed past Bahrain 3-1 with a second-half brace from Paris Saint-Germain star Lee Kang-In to get their Asian Cup off to a winning start.
On a day that all eyes were once again on Son Heung-Min, Asian football’s ultimate superstar, Lee Kang-In stole the show with two outstanding goals and impressed with his all-round display, showing great versatility and tenacity to help his side to three valuable points in their opening game against Bahrain.
The Gulf nation resisted for 68 minutes but fell short, as so many of other the smaller finalists, in the second half.
Lining up in a 4-4-2 formation with Kim Min-Jae anchoring the defense and Son Heung-Min and Cho Gue-Sung in attack, South Korea had the lion’s share of possession but played with a note of caution against the Bahraini who, under manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, at his second successive Asian Cup, are targeting a spot in the last sixteen.
Every time Son touched the ball the noise volume went up a notch at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, with the Korean fans singling out the Tottenham Hotspur star.
In a star-studded XI, Son remains the marquee player, but it was Hwang In-beom who had first sight of goal, glancing a header harmlessly wide.
At the half-hour mark, Cho Gue-sung should have opened Korea’s account but, inexplicably, with the goalmouth at his mercy, he skied the ball high and wide.
Pizzi’s team responded swiftly when Ali Madan got in behind the Korean defense but in his haste, he lacked precision. The winger was among the most industrious Bahraini, proving a handful for the Korean rearguard.
Hardly an imposing force, the two-time champions took the lead in the 38th minute, Hwang In-beom driving the ball home from Lee Jae-sung’s low cross. It was a relief for manager Jurgen Klinsmann who has faced a lot of criticism in South Korea in the lead-up to the final for spending most of his time away from the country.
His team were up and running and on the way to what the German hopes will be a deep run with a potential quarter-final against Iran awaiting as the first blockbuster. Klinsmann knows that his future depends on this tournament and a 1-0 lead was a neat reward for a modest showing.
His side got off to a dramatic second-half start as Bahrain levelled after a well-worked move that saw Abdullah Al Hashash guide the ball past goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu from close range.
Stung by the equaliser, Korea reacted in style and PSG’s Lee Kang-In curled his shot to perfection – in off the post – past the Bahraini goalkeeper, 2-1. Klinsmann pumped his fists in celebration of the stunning long-range strike and, with the momentum shift tangible, his side seized the initiative. Son let fly a half volley that Ebrahim Lutfalla did well to parry.
Korea fizzed the ball from left to right, opening up space for Lee Kang-In, who left his direct opponent for dead and curled the ball sweetly past Lutfalla, 3-1. His brace sealed the match for the Koreans, who were beginning to turn on the style with the technique and delicate touches of both Lee Kang-In and Son Heung-Min tormenting a tired Bahraini defense. In the dying minutes of the match, the Tottenham star had Lutfalla at his mercy, yet couldn’t convert. It mattered little because the day belonged to Lee Kang-In.
In his post-match comments, the man of the match stressed team unity, but his manager Klinsmann, somewhat disgruntled, singled out the match referee for dishing out yellow cards, with the Koreans getting cautioned three times in the first 28 minutes. In response, the German took off Lee Ki-Je as well as Kim Min-Jae early to prevent a sending-off.
“It was a tricky game,” said Klinsmann. “It had a lot to do with the Chinese referee giving too many cards too early and that is why I took of Kim Min-Jae and Lee Ki-Jae because we feared if they did a slight fault they would get sent off. I thought he exaggerated a bit by giving the cards out too easily.”
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