Asian Cup: South Korea present case for better defence
Of all the positives South Korea will take away from their run to the Asian Cup final, the fact that they have not conceded a goal through five matches should be held up as the biggest point of progress for a team ripped apart at the World Cup.
Seoul: Of all the positives South Korea will take away from their run to the Asian Cup final, the fact that they have not conceded a goal through five matches should be held up as the biggest point of progress for a team ripped apart at the World Cup.
South Korea leaked six goals from three games in Brazil, despite being placed in arguably the easiest of eight groups, and were mercifully sent home with just a point following a draw against Russia and defeats to Algeria and Belgium.
Their darkest moment was undoubtedly a 4-2 defeat by Algeria, where the Korean defence, frozen in blind panic, was torn to shreds in a display of jaw-dropping inadequacy.
But just seven months later, South Korea stand on the brink of their first Asian title in 55 years and, remarkably, could go through the tournament with an unblemished defensive record.
It is a turnaround few expected and it is hard to put a finger on the secret to this new-found, stingy defending.
It certainly cannot be consistency since coach Uli Stielike has chopped and changed his back four in virtually every match since taking over last September.
The German has, however, driven home the importance of organisational discipline and his defence, protected by holding midfielders Ki Sung-yueng and Park Joo-ho, has rarely been caught out of position.
His decision to go with goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon as the new national number one has also paid off handsomely.
The Japan-based keeper, barring a dodgy performance against Iraq in a sodden Sydney semi-final, has inspired confidence in his back four and delivered important saves when it mattered, particularly against Australia in the group stage.
Five consecutive clean sheets would be enough to make any coach smile, but Stielike, who throughout the tournament has tried to temper expectations, has somehow managed to find a downside to such defensive frugality.
"Because we haven`t allowed a goal, the players might get flustered once the opponent scores," he told local media. "We can`t keep this streak alive for a year or two years. We have to learn how to deal with it when we`re scored against."
Left back Kim Jin-su is the only defender to start every match at the Asian Cup, though without doubt the biggest impact player has been Cha Du-ri, whose galloping runs from right back have led to two crucial goals.
Former national team defender and now television pundit Lee Young-pyo highlighted the importance of full backs Kim and Cha by saying it was vital to cut off the supply to Australia dangerman Tim Cahill in Saturday`s final in Sydney.
"It`s important not to let him get crosses," he told local media. "Our defenders can`t just wait on headers."
While playing the hosts in the final is the toughest match-up yet for South Korea, defender Kim said it would be an opportunity to prove they were back at the summit of Asian football.
"If we`re going to win the championship, I`d love to do it against the host Australia in a packed stadium," Yonhap News quoted the full-back as saying.
"I want to show everyone that we`re back as a football power."