Tottenham attacker sparks S. Korean offense in World Cup qualifier victory

September 1, 2016

SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) — Tottenham Hotspur attacker Son Heung-min, much maligned for his recent Olympic performance, provided plenty of spark for South Korea in their 3-2 win over China in the World Cup qualifying match Thursday.

Son did everything but get on the score sheet at Seoul World Cup Stadium, where the 48th-ranked home team fended off a late flurry by the visitors ranked No. 78.

Son kickstarted the South Korean offense with a hard shot in the 17th minute, a play that sent a jolt through what had been a cautious, if dull, match.

It was Son’s free kick that led to the opening goal of the night in the 20th minute. After Oh Jae-suk was brought down on the top left corner of the box, Son stepped up and sent a sharp kick toward the Chinese goalmouth.

In a mad scramble, midfielder Ji Dong-won managed to get his head on the ball, but it ultimately went in off the leg of Chinese midfielder Zheng Zhi.

Son remained active on the attack, and shot one high over the net in the 54th, trying to swing the momentum back in South Korea’s favor after China came out firing in the second half.

Son played the role of a creator again on the team’s third goal. Lee Chung-yong had made it 2-0 with a 62nd-minute header, and Son found Koo Ja-cheol with a perfectly placed cross from the left flank four minutes later. As the ball traveled through the Chinese goalmouth and past defenders, Koo only needed to poke it home for a three-goal lead.

Son wasn’t ultimately credited with the assist, as Ji Dong-won got a piece of the ball before Koo scored, but it doesn’t diminish Son’s impact on the play as a whole.

South Korean midfielder Son Heung-min (R) tries to dribble past Feng Xiaoting of China during their Asian World Cup qualifier at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Sept. 1, 2016.

South Korean midfielder Son Heung-min (R) tries to dribble past Feng Xiaoting of China during their Asian World Cup qualifier at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Sept. 1, 2016.

Though South Korea had to sweat out the final moments when China scored two quick goals, they made Son’s efforts count in the end.

Son’s final chance to get on board was foiled in the 86th by goalkeeper Zeng Cheng.

Son competed at last month’s Rio de Janeiro Summer Games, but his bid for an Olympic medal ended in tears, as Honduras beat South Korea 1-0 in the quarterfinals.

Son had a handful of opportunities in that match, only to be denied by goalkeeper Luis Lopez. South Korea couldn’t solve the hot custodian, and Son bore the brunt of criticism for the team’s futility.

Son then became the subject of persistent transfer rumors, with teams in the Bundesliga, his former stomping ground, reportedly interested in his service. The Spurs, though, decided to retain him and keep him in their plans for at least another season.

With the off-field distraction behind, Son performed Thursday like he’s often capable of — with panache and controlled abandon.

Son acknowledged it was a difficult match for South Korea because the opposing defense didn’t give up much room.

“We had to work to create space, but I think we played with plenty of poise,” Son said. “Up until 3-0, we played a satisfactory match. We made some mistakes to let them make it 3-2, but I was impressed with the way the entire team fought to preserve the one-goal lead.”

Son said he was happy with the team’s performance overall because the result counts more than the process at this stage in qualification.

“It’s never easy to get three points,” he said. “Good teams have had tough starts, and I am glad we took the first step forward, no matter how difficult it was.”

Son will not travel with the team for the next qualifier against Syria in Malaysia, a neutral venue designated for the war-torn Middle East country. Son will instead join the Spurs and will try to make his Premier League season debut.

“I feel terrible about leaving the national team now, because it’s always an honor for me to play for the country,” he said. “I am sorry to my teammates and coaches. But I have faith that they will get the job done.”

Son added he will try to move past the transfer speculation and focus on the season ahead.

“I know what I have to do once I rejoin the club,” he said. “I will do the best I can to maintain great form and play in as many matches as I can.”