S. Korean offense firing on all cylinders in World Cup qualifying campaign

November 22, 2023

With their biggest stars doing the heavy lifting, South Korea’s offense is firing on all cylinders in the early going of their World Cup qualifying tournament.

Behind captain Son Heung-min’s brace, South Korea defeated China 3-0 in Shenzhen, China, on Tuesday in their second Group C match in the Asian qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

This was South Korea’s second consecutive victory in Group C, coming on the heels of their 5-0 rout of Singapore in Seoul last Thursday. Counting international friendlies, South Korea have won five straight matches.

In that comfortable win, five different players had contributed a goal apiece, and they were all Europe-based stars, a who’s who in South Korean football today.

Son, also skipper for Tottenham Hotspur, was one of them. He extended his international scoring streak to three matches Tuesday with his 11th-minute penalty.

Hwang Hee-chan, Wolverhampton Wanderers winger who had scored against Singapore, did all the dirty work to draw that penalty. He drove hard into the box and fed the ball to forward Cho Gue-sung, and it sent the Chinese defenders scrambling.

Zhu Chenjie fell in front of his goalkeeper Yan Junling in the chaotic development, and Zhu tripped up Hwang as he chased the loose ball in the goalmouth. Son took the ensuing spot kick and found the bottom left corner to put South Korea up 1-0.

Cho, who’d opened the scoring against Singapore, nearly headed in another against China on 16 minutes, after Lee Kang-in took a corner from the right side.

Lee, one of the five goal scorers last week, arrived in Shenzhen on a three-match goal-scoring streak, having netted four times in that span. But the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder has never been a natural goal scorer, and seemed content to play his usual playmaking role Tuesday night.

Lee found Son streaking behind the defense with a pinpoint through ball on 44 minutes, though Son was turned aside by Yan. The dynamic duo did connect for a goal on the ensuing corner, as Son headed Lee’s cross into the bottom left corner from the right side of the six-yard box.

It was Lee’s first assist for Son.

Then eight minutes into the second half, Son set up Lee for what would have been an easy goal off a fast break, as the midfielder took a right-footed shot into the empty net after dancing past Yan. Defender Zhu dove for a desperate block to keep the ball out.

It was still a promising moment featuring two of South Korea’s most skilled offensive players, offering a glimpse of what can be possible when both are at their creative peak.

Son did get his assist, setting up Jung Seung-hyun’s header goal with a free kick on 87 minutes that rounded out the scoring.

In a televised interview in English after the match, Son said it was “a difficult game” playing in front of some 40,000 fans rooting against South Korea in Shenzhen.

“We deserved to get three points today,” Son said. “We were well-disciplined. We did a fantastic job.”

As for his rare header goal, his first in 13 months, Son said, “In set-pieces, we always think there’s a great chance to score goals. Obviously, we practice different options and I am very pleased I could score the header.”

South Korea head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is riding a five-match winning streak, after the team recorded three draws and two losses in his first five matches.

Over this five-match run, South Korea have scored 19 goals and conceded zero.

South Korea should have little trouble grabbing a World Cup spot for 2026, with 48 countries, up from the previous 32, set to compete. In the shorter term, the recent surge bodes well for South Korea’s chances at the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in Qatar in January.

For all their continental dominance, South Korea have not won the Asian Cup since 1960. Klinsmann has repeatedly said his primary goal as South Korea’s boss is to end that drought.

The German coach is blessed with the kind of talent that few of his predecessors had at their disposal. Klinsmann has often been accused of lacking tactical acumen and not getting the best out of his players at his previous stops. But over the past handful of matches, South Korean stars have made their head coach look like a genius, winning the matches that they’re supposed to win and doing so in convincing fashion.

Son rejected the notion that the current iteration of the national team is the best in Korean history, pointing to the 2002 team that marched into the semifinals of the World Cup that year as a co-host.

“Historically, we’ve had fantastic players,” Son said of those who came before him. “We want to be one of the best teams in Korean history.”