2015 Asian Cup: Saudis Recover to Crush Koreans

 

DPR Korea 1 Saudi Arabia 4

 

It is hard to imagine two countries today that are politically and economically so different as the two that played in Wednesday night’s Asian Cup tie in Melbourne. In a previous generation you could suspect that one or both would have withdrawn from the competition rather than meet on the football field, but they did and without apparent rancour. Perhaps I should qualify that remark since the first incident resulted in what was probably the fastest booking in Asian Cup history as Korea’s Jong Il Gwan was cautioned by referee Abdullah Mohamed Al Hilali after only 20 seconds for an over-the-ball challenge.

Thereafter the game settled down though there were a number of free kicks for mistimed tackles and the men from the Hermit Kingdom began to test the Saudi defence. In the 11th minute, Pak Kwang Ryong struck a fierce shot which the Saudi keeper, Waleed Abdullah, could only parry into the path of Ryang Yong Gi who fired in the first goal.

By now the crowd were well into the game. Both teams had their supporters, though some of the South Koreans, who came to barrack for their Northern brothers as part of a campaign for national unification, had their small banners banned from display as being political. My colleague Joe Gorman of Guardian Australia felt this was a petty response by the Asian Cup authorities. As was removing the son of one of the visiting journalists from the press area. Since there were the empty spaces in the media tribune, the child was probably safer there than in the spectator area nearby, though safety was the reason given for doing so.

Many locals had taken the Asian Cup organisers plea to adopt a second team to heart and the Melbourne Victory crew were there in good numbers among the decent crowd of 12,349. Towards the end they were chanting ‘For the Victory stand-up’, which seemed a bit inappropriate, but they regularly chant ‘F-off Sydney’ when Victory is playing Wellington, Perth or Adelaide, so you quickly appreciate that this all part of the determination of football fans to present their unique view of what support means.

It took the Saudis till the 37th minute before they got on terms. They worked the ball down the left and Mohammed Al Sahlawi threaded the ball through to the key playmaker Nawaf Alabid. The tricky forward drove towards goal then laid the ball off to Naif Hazazi who had a clearer shot on goal as he overlapped on the right. It was a well worked effort and Nawaf nearly had a second just before half time as he baffled two defenders only to have Korean keeper Ri Myong Guk turn the ball away for a corner kick. So the Saudis came to the break with their confidence rising, while the Koreans seemed to be struggling to keep up.

The game turned completely between the 52 and 54th minutes as Saudi Arabia scored two goals thanks in large part to Korean errors. First a cross from the left by Abdulla Al Dossary was deflected by a Korean defender into the path of Al Sahlawi who had an easy finish. Two minutes later he was given another gift as keeper Ri Myong Guk came out to cut out a through ball, only for Jang Syong Hyok to intervene and present the ball to predatory Saudi attacker.

From then on Saudi Arabia was dominant and could have had several goals apart from the one they did get in 77 minutes. It was a strange one. Korean defender Ri Yong Jik tried to prevent a high shot going into goal, but was adjudged to have handled the ball as it came off the cross-bar. He was sent off apparently, though I missed that in the controversy which followed before Nawaf Alabid stepped up to take the penalty kick. His shot cannoned off both posts but he followed up quickly forcing the ball home as he collided with the keeper who also slid into the post.

Also last night, China beat Uzbekistan 2-1 in the other match in Group B, setting up a critical encounter between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan in Melbourne on Sunday night, with the winner going through to the knock-out stage. That should be a cracker of a game with the Saudis having a slight advantage since if it is drawn they will go through because of a superior goal difference. Ties are separated first by the head-to-head result, but if that is a draw goal difference comes into play.

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