(Asian Cup) S. Korea badly exposed in humiliating draw vs. Malaysia

January 26, 2024

South Korea arrived in Qatar for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup this month as one of the top title favorites.

Three group stage matches later, they should no longer be considered a championship contender. Unless they can shore up their shoddy defense and become more clinical on the attack, South Korea will have a hard time just moving past the round of 16. They’re chasing their first AFC title since 1960.

The latest piece of evidence on South Korea’s utter mediocrity came Thursday, when they were held by the minnows Malaysia 3-3 at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, south of Doha. South Korea, despite being the highest-ranked AFC team in the group at No. 23, finished as the runner-up behind Bahrain in Group E.

South Korea came into the match having already pocketed a knockout berth, while Malaysia, after two consecutive losses, had been eliminated from knockout contention. They didn’t have a goal in those games.

South Korea appeared well on their way to a victory that many pundits had expected, after opening the scoring with Jeong Woo-yeong’s 21st-minute header. It came on the heels of long stretches of ball possession domination.

But with South Korean-born head coach Kim Pan-gon in charge, Malaysia came out for the restart as the more determined side. At his prematch press conference Wednesday, Kim had wondered aloud why people thought Malaysia couldn’t beat South Korea, and his players competed as if to prove their coach’s point.

The first two Malaysian goals were the results of some careless play by South Korea.

Faisal Halim netted the equalizer in the 51st minute after midfielder Hwang In-beom had his pocket picked deep in his own zone. Then a foul by defender Seol Young-woo on Arif Aiman resulted in a penalty, which Aiman himself converted to put Malaysia up 2-1. Seol ended up kicking Aiman in the foot when trying to take away a cross toward the forward.

South Korea didn’t score an open play goal the rest of the way. Their 83rd-minute equalizer ended up being an own goal, as Lee Kang-in’s free kick went in off the hand of goalkeeper Syihan Hazmi. Son Heung-min later converted a penalty to give South Korea a 3-2 lead during stoppage time.

Instead of trying to protect their lead, South Korea kept pressing for another goal. That unnecessary aggression backfired when Romel Morales scored the last-gasp equalizer for Malaysia on a counter break.

The stunning result meant South Korea avoided facing Japan, the top-ranked AFC team at No. 17, in the round of 16. Japan, too, have been stunned in this tournament with a 2-1 loss to Iraq last week.

South Korea will instead face the Group F winner, which could be either Saudi Arabia or Thailand, depending on the result of these two teams’ matchup later Thursday.

On paper, either country would present a more palatable matchup for South Korea than Japan. However, South Korea have done nothing to suggest their superior ranking position — not to mention featuring the likes of Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in — will translate to on-field success in Qatar.

South Korea opened Group E play with a not-so-convincing, 3-1 win over Bahrain on Jan. 15, a victory only made possible by the individual brilliance of Lee who scored a brace.

South Korea then blew a 1-0 lead and came within minutes of losing to Jordan before salvaging a 2-2 draw on Jordan’s late own goal.

Then came the draw against Malaysia that must have felt like a loss for South Korea and a win for their opponent. Be it their questionable defense or wasteful offense, South Korea will have their work cut out as they stagger into the knockouts.