A new-look Korea strolled to an entertaining 2-1 win over an experimental Nigerian side bereft of some of its stars on Wednesday night in Suwon. Both teams looked to do one better over the result in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a 2-2 draw, which consequently saw the Super Eagles out and Korea through to the round of 16.
New manager Cho Kwang-Rae had explicitly stated in the pre-match conferences that he sought to emulate the intricate short passing game of Spain and looked to also bolster the defense. And as expected, Cho opted with a 3-4-3 formation to start the match, a slight variant on the 3-4-2-1 that had been speculated for the past week. Korea wasted no time in asserting its authority in possession with the center of midfield, bossed by Ki Sung-Yong and 20-year old debutant Yoon Bitgaram, who both looked especially sharp in dictating the pace of play. It came as relatively little surprise then, when in the 16th minute, Korea opened the scoring with a wonderful solo effort from Yoon, who played off a smart throw-in from rightback Choi Hyo-Jin, fooled his defender with a deft touch and volleyed past hapless goalkeeper Dele Ayenunga.
Nigeria immediately sought to make amends but were often left to bemoan a dearth of creativity in midfield, errant passes frequently being intercepted and turned into dangerous counters by the highly fluid Korean attacking line. The interchanging runs from the front-three of Park Ji-Sung, Park Ju-Young, and youngster Cho Young-Cheol was impressive at times and so it came as somewhat against the run of play when Nigeria equalized from an excellent set-piece courtesy of Kala Uche, Peter Odemwingie and slack Korean marking in the penalty area. The goal sparked Korea into more incisive pressure and their efforts paid off right before the stroke of halftime when some intricate interplay between Yoon Bitgaram and Park Ji-Sung saw the latter free in attacking space and slip a perfect through-ball for the onrushing Choi Hyo-Jin whose left-footed finished found the back of the net.
Half-time brought some fond recollections and teary eyes as longstanding goalkeeper Lee Woon-Jae, who had previously announced his plans for retirement after the Nigeria match, was honored for his outstanding and dedicated service for the team, the apogee of which was the penalty shootout heroics that saw Korea into the semifinals of the World cup for the first time in its history. With the Nigeria match, Lee earned his 132nd cap for Korea, second in all-time leaders behind defensive legend and 2002 colleague Hong Myung-Bo.
As emotions were beginning to subside after half-time, they flared back up as Korea and Nigeria sought to look for a crucial goal and produced some entertaining end-to-end stuff with Korea dominating much of the second half and should have gone ahead but for Park Ju-Young’s tame effort straight at Ayenunga. The second-half also brought a slew of substitutions as manager Cho looked to test some newer faces as Ki Sung-Yong, Kwak Tae-Hwi, Park Ji-Sung and Park Ju-Young all made way for Hong Jung-Ho, Baek Ji-Hoon, Lee Seung-Ryul, and Kim Bo-Kyung respectively. As the second half wore on, the game began to peter out with the Suwon humidity affecting both the fitness of both teams significantly. Sloppy challenges and cramps became the norm and both teams seemed to be content at the end to come away without any significant injuries.
The win marks a good debut for manager Cho Kwang-Rae whose footballing philosophy looks more inspired than his predecessor. Although there were a few questions still asked of the defense, the team produced a solid all-around result that continues the crest of good feelings from the wave of reaching the last 16. Cho will have an opportunity to build on his initial success in the forthcoming match against Iran on September 7th.
Highlights of the match can be seen here.
Player ratings are here.
Lee Woon Jae (Jung Sung-Ryong 27′) (GK) – Kwak Tae-Hwi (Hong Jung-Ho HT’), Lee Jung-Soo (Cho Yong-Hyung 77′), Kim Young-Gwun – Choi Hyo-Jin, Ki Sung-Yong (Baek Ji-Hoon 62′), Yoon Bitgaram, Lee Young-Pyo – Park Ji-Sung (C) (Lee Seung-Ryul HT’), Cho Young-Cheol – Park Ju-Young (Kim Bo-Kyung 72′)
Korea: Yoon Bitgaram (16′), Choi Hyo-Jin (44′)
Nigeria: Peter Odemwingie (26′)