Must-win Sunday

June 20, 2014

South Korea vs. Algeria at noon

Korean manager Hong Myung-bo, left, and Algeria's boss Vahid Halilhodz. (Yonhap)

Korean manager Hong Myung-bo, left, and Algeria’s boss Vahid Halilhodz. (Yonhap)

South Korea had won the first game it played in each of the last three World Cups, and the unbeaten streak was kept intact Tuesday with a 1-1 draw against Russia.

Now, S. Korea will try to buck the trend of never having won the second match in the group stage in any of its eight previous World Cup appearances on Sunday.

Korea has a record of four draws and four losses in the second group matches, including the 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Netherlands in 1998, and a 7-0 loss to Turkey in 1954.

On paper, Algeria is not as tough as Russia, and Koreans had pegged this one as the game they should and will win from the beginning.

Having secured one point, a win over Algeria for three more points would bring Korea on the verge of a spot in the round of 16, with a group finale against the heavily favored Belgium scheduled next week.

However, Algeria is a much faster team than Russia, and the way Belgium struggled against them is a cause for concern. Algeria showed that it’s capable of playing a lockdown defense despite losing late to Belgium 2-1.

Sofiane Feghouli, the team’s primary offensive weapon, drew a penalty against Belgium in the first half and converted it himself to give Algeria an early 1-0 lead. Up front, El Arabi Soudani and Nabil Bentaleb also looked sharp.

On the other hand, Korea had lost two consecutive friendlies before the World Cup without scoring a goal, and some would argue Korea still hasn’t scored since Lee Keun-ho’s goal is basically considered to be a goalkeeper’s blunder.

But, it was a goal nonetheless, and the Koreans said afterward the match was a huge boost to their collective confidence. Winger Son Heung-min, who airmailed a couple of shots, admitted that Korea would have won had he been on target.

Another concern for Korea is that three key players were booked against Russia. Another yellow for any one of them against Algeria will mean an automatic suspension in the next match. Ki Sung-yueng, Son Heung-min and Koo Ja-cheol were the penalized players.

Ki, in particular, is known for his aggressive play as the primary holding midfielder, and his vision and power make him as irreplaceable as anyone on the squad. He is also considered to be the best kicker on the team, and his absence could deal a fatal blow to Korea’s hopes of advancing further.

What complicates the matter is that Ki’s backup, Ha Dae-sung, is injured. Ha has been ruled out of the Algerian match with a sprained ligament in his left foot, and remains a question mark for the finale against Belgium, making it even more important for Ki to stay out of trouble.

The must-win game for both side will unfold at noon on Sunday at Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, in the southeastern part of Brazil. It’s about 600 kilometers east of the Korean base camp in Foz do Iguacu and the weather is expected to be chilly.