Cinderel-Lee story: rookie striker propels Korea to 1st win of 2015

January 4, 2015
Son Heung-min lifts up Lee Jung-yeop after Lee scores his first international goal. (Yonhap)

Son Heung-min lifts up Lee Jung-yeop after Lee scores his first international goal. (Yonhap)

By Nam Hyun-woo

It was an unforgettable night for South Korea’s rookie striker Lee Jung-hyub as his goal helped his team to a 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia in the final tune-up match before the Asian Cup in Australia.

The forward for domestic military club Sangju Sangmu scored his side’s second goal 30 minutes after coming on for his international debut.

The Koreans, seeking to move on from their Brazil World Cup debacle last year, started 2015 with an encouraging victory at the Pirtek Stadium in Sydney, which will likely boost morale ahead of their bid to end the country’s 55-year Asian Cup drought.

The inclusion of the 23-year-old, dubbed “Cinderella” by local media, was one of the biggest surprises made by Korea’s coach Uli Stielike, but the decision paid immediate dividends.

The Taeguk Warriors had taken the lead after Saudi Arabia conceded an own goal in the second-half in what was a cagey game. However, lingering problems that affected the Korean team last year were still apparent. Stielike clearly has a lot of work ahead of him before his side take on Oman in their first group match on Jan. 10, particularly with finding an attacking combination that is capable of breaking down stubborn defenses.

With key England-based duo Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong missing for the game, the Koreans struggled to create chances from midfield.

The two sides’ midfield players cancelled each other out for the most part, with the Saudi Arabians shading possession slightly. Though the Koreans had more of the ball in the second half, they failed to deliver up front. The Korean forwards were largely ineffective throughout the game and there was a severe lack of meaningful chances up until the closing minutes of the game.

Korea’s star forward Son Heung-min led the attack, and although he didn’t score, he worked tirelessly for his side.

In the 16th minute, captain Koo Ja-cheol expertly crossed to set Son up to fire in a powerful volley, but his attempt cannoned off the cross bar.

Son had another fierce strike denied in 23rd minute when a clearance from Lee Keun-ho fell to him, but his left-footed effort was turned away by the goalkeeper.

Saudi Arabia responded in the 27th minute when Nawaf Al-Abid exploited Korean defender Kim Ju-young’s blunder to launch an audacious overhead kick, but goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyun dived to deny the attempt.

While spending the remaining minutes of the first half ineffectively, the Koreans often lacked accuracy in their passing game. The Saudi Arabians were not decisive enough either.

After the cagey first half, Stielike replaced three of his midfielders in an attempt to resuscitate his blunt attack, but this move did not bring the desired response until Osama Hawsawi of Saudi Arabia conceded the own goal.

This occurred when Son fired in a powerful free kick in the 67th minute and the ball was deflected by the Al-Ahli defender into his own net.

After taking the lead, the Koreans picked up their tempo, but were not able to extend the margin between the sides until Lee Jung-hyub scored.

This happened when creative midfielder Nam Tae-hee created havoc in Saudi Arabia’s penalty box and floated a cross into Kim Chang-soo in the 90th minute. Kim directed the ball to Lee, who had replaced Cho Young-cheol in the 72nd minute, and then slid in to direct the ball into the net.

Korea, paired with Oman, Kuwait and the hosts Australia in Group A, will open their tournament on Jan. 10. They will face Kuwait on Jan. 13 before taking on Australia on Jan. 17.