By Harry Ewing at the Education City Stadium
January 30 – It was another night of red-hot passion and nerve jangling football in the last 16 ties of the Asian Cup in Doha, Qatar.
An equalising South Korean goal in the ninth minute of added time followed by extra time and a nailbiting 4-2 win in the penalty shoot-out ended Saudi Arabia’s Asian Cup campaign.
In a series of no-holds-barred last 16 contests, Korea vs Saudi Arabia left no neutral disappointed but the vast Saudi support wondering what could have been.
With the score 1-0 heading into added time at the end of the second half, Korean substitute Cho Gue-sung rescued his side in the last breath of normal time with a header. The Education City Stadium, which was ceaseless in its roaring enthusiasm, then watched nervously as Korea flawlessly dispatched four penalties whilst Saudi’s substitutes stumbled when it mattered most.
South Korea have been far from their best during the group stages, being beaten to top spot by Bahrain after dropping points versus Jordan and Malaysia. They also conceded six goals across the three games.
In contrast, Saudi topped Group F with back-to-back victories versus Oman and Kyrgyzstan, followed by a draw with Thailand.
Korea, with a team built on players plying their trade at European clubs, had the recognisable names and came with an unbeaten run in competitive play that reached back to their 4-1 loss to Brazil in 2022 which ended their World Cup journey.
Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia welcomed three changes from the side’s win against Kyrgyz Republic, introducing Al Hilal’s Nasser Al Dawsari and Saleh Al-Shehri alongside Al Nassr’s Abdullah Al Khaibari to add a degree of pedigree to an otherwise inexperienced midfield at the top level. Sticking to his promise to play their own game, Mancini looked to utilise the familiar 3-5-2 from the group stages.
Meanwhile, Juergen Klinsmann opted to switch to a 3-4-2-1 from the 4-4-2, adding an extra defender, Jung, and pushing the fullbacks much higher up the pitch to allow Son Heung Min to drift into central areas. He looked to use his European pedigree players, headlined by Son and Kang In Lee, in the key attacking areas but left in-form Wolves striker Hwang Hee Chan on the bench.
With the Saudi crowd outnumbering the travelling Koreans ten to one, every tackle made by their team was accompanied by a deafening roar from the wall of green behind the Saudi goal. Similarly, the Koreans weren’t allowed a touch of the ball without whistling and jeering.
Spurred on by the noise around the Education City Stadium, the Saudi players were quick to remind star striker Son Heung Min of their physical presence, bullying the player with tactical fouls early in the game.
The first real chance came as Korean defender Kim Min Jae, who was excellent in the opening half an hour, cleaned up a loose touch from Salem Al Dawsari and launched the ball goalwards into the path of Son at full sprint. The Spurs man beat the defender but was denied by Ahmed Ali Al Kassar in the Saudi net from a tight angle.
In return Saudi fashioned a first chance of their own – a wayward shot from Al-Shehri following a slick break by the Saudis.
Despite his early chance, Son looked lost as a lone number nine but grew into the game.
Taking advantage of their height difference, Saudi Arabia headers struck the crossbar twice in quick succession, forcing an incredible save from Cho at the third time of asking.
The teams entered the tunnel on level terms, with Mancini’s men looking slightly more likely to score. The possession was a 50/50 dead split, with Saudi mustering five shots (one on target) to Korea Republic’s four (two on target).
Mancini opted for a substitution during half time, trusting young talent Abdullah Radif to join Al-Dawsari up front. Within a minute Radif surged forward to break between the Korean defenders and nestle the ball in the bottom right corner to earn his side an immediate lead.
Smelling blood, the swathes of green lining the Education City Stadium dialled up to a new level of volume, which seemed to drag their players to an even higher gear.
In a bid to turn things around, Klinsmann introduced Hwang Hee Chan and veteran midfielder Yong-Woo Park, switching to 4-2-3-1 to get his team back into gear.
Mancini was shown a yellow card for his sideline antics as his team continued to throw the ball away after every foul, protecting their slender lead using every trick in the book.
With pressure Korean pressure building, chance after chance went begging.
The best opportunity of the game arrived in the 85th minute following four consecutive goal-line clearances, as the Saudis put their bodies on the line to save the scoreline. The ball appeared to brush the hand of a Saudi defender, who was extremely lucky to escape the clutches of VAR.
With time running out, striker Gue-Sung Cho headed the ball on to the crossbar, a chance that looked easier to score than miss. It seemed too little, too late for the Koreans, who would have been better served if they had attacked the game with this ferocity from the first whistle.
With ninety seconds to spare, Cho redeemed himself, nodding in a cross on the line.
Everything was to play for again in extra time and the tension had reached fever pitch. Ali Lajami was lucky to escape VAR in the 97th minute after his hand seemed to deliberately grasp Hwang Hee Chan’s neck inside the penalty area.
South Korea continued their momentum of the end of the game and continued to test Kassar in the Saudi net. Klinsmann deserves credit for the formation switch, which allowed his team to press and counter press with much more solidity and fashion chances with ease after robbing the opposition of possession high up the pitch.
Cho looked like he had won the game for Korea when he rounded the keeper to face an almost-empty net but passed the ball to Son who, looking as surprised as everybody else in the stadium, hit his shot into own player.
Kang In Lee’s late effort forced a spectacular save from Al Kassar, who yet again hit the deck clutching his head to slow the game. The gamesmanship marred an otherwise superb performance between the sticks.
The penalty shoot-out loomed.
After the first two takers from each team dispatched their penalties, Saudi substitute Al-Najei produced a tame shot that was easily saved by Jo Hyeon-Woo in Korea’s goal. Cho then stepped up to add to his heroics by scoring to put the Koreans ahead in the shootout. In response, Abdulrahman Ghareeb missed his penalty, sending Mancini marching down the tunnel before his fate was sealed.
Hwang Hee Chan thumped the ball into the net for the final time.
South Korea will meet Australia later in the week for the Quarter finals in a rematch of the 2015 final.
Contact the writer of this story, Harry Ewing, at firstname.lastname@example.org