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The Son Also Rises
Korea Defeats Mali 3-1 as Son Heung-min and
Lee Chung-yong Shine In Rare Offensive Display
By Kim Tong-hyung
Korea manager Hong Myung-bo has complained about the lack of an impact striker. His wide attackers Son Heung-min and Lee Chung-yong made an audacious statement Tuesday night that they were willing to take care of business from the wing.
Son, the 21-year-old Bayern Leverkusen standout, scored the match-winner, which was from one of two goal assists by Bolton Wanderers veteran Lee, as Korea defeated Mali 3-1in a friendly in the southwestern city of Cheonan.
Son’s combination of speed, skill and decisiveness is apparently critical for Hong’s squad that has been frequently rendered toothless, and Lee, 25, appears to be coming around as a distributor.
It’s questionable whether Hong would consider the match as a clue on what to do with his maddening merry-go-round at the forward position. Lee Keun-ho, his target man for the night, impressed with a non-stop motor but struggled to finish against bigger defenders.
Outscored and outclassed in a 2-0 loss to Brazil in last week’s friendly in Seoul, the Koreans looked sharper against Mali, a big, physical team that wasn’t as nearly as technically gifted as the World Cup hosts.
The Koreans were aggressive out of the gate, with Lee Chung-yong and Son relentlessly pounding the flanks, attempting to create space for Lee Keun-ho freelancing in the box. However, they failed to get a clean shot off against the visitors who were playing deep and Mali’s attackers Modibo Maiga and Mana Dembele were visible enough to keep their defense honest.
Kim Young-gwon wasted a header in the 12th minute and Son’s left-footer near the top of the box went wide two minutes later. Son showed his feel for the game three minutes later when he perfectly timed a cross by Kim Jin-soo and beamed a header from the edge of the box, only to see it clear the crossbar by inches.
Koo Ja-cheol had consecutive shots blocked by Malian goalkeeper Abdoulaye Samake moments later, and Lee Keun-ho squandered a chance in 23rd minute when he launched the ball into the legs of a defender.
It looked as if Korea would pay for its missed opportunities four minutes later when Mali converted on its first shot on goal. A foul by Korea’s Kim Jin-soo gave Mali a set-piece attempt from the edge of the box and Maiga headed in a cross by Dembele to put the visitors up 1-0.
The lead failed to last 10 minutes. In defending an arching cross from Kim Jin-soo, Malian defender Ousmane Coulibaly allowed his hands to graze the ball. Koo calmly converted the penalty shot to tie it at one apiece.
Lee Keun-ho missed a critical chance to put his team up front near the end of the first half when Kim Jin-soo found him uncovered deep in the box, only to knock the header above the crossbar.
Son wasted no time to put the Koreans ahead in the second-half, taking a through ball from Lee Chung-yong and ripping the net with a right footer from the edge of the box, less than 30 seconds after the referee blew the whistle.
Koo appeared to have injured his right ankle on a rough tackle by a Mali defender in the 54th minute and was substituted by Cardiff City winger Kim Bo-kyung. Kim showed his presence three minutes later, scoring Korea’s third goal after a nifty give-and-go with Lee Chung-yong in the box that seemed to suck the fight out of the visitors.
Coming off one of the weakest World Cup qualifying campaigns in recent memory, where Korea barely secured a ticket to next year’s finals in Brazil without convincing anyone that it belonged there, the Korea Football Association opted to reboot the national squad from scratch.
At manager, an overmatched Choi Kang-hee was replaced by Hong, widely considered the country’s greatest defender ever and a promising coach who just led the under-23 team to a bronze medal at the London Olympics.
Through the eight games under Hong’s stewardship, the team has managed two wins, three draws and three defeats and scored nine goals in the process.