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(News Focus) Youth served as S. Korean football comes alive just in time

2013/06/12 09:01

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) -- Much-maligned for uninspired play of late, the South Korean men's national football team came alive just in time to secure a vital win over Uzbekistan in their World Cup qualifier on Tuesday.

Youth was served as South Korea eked out a 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan at Seoul World Cup Stadium. Given South Korea's epidemic failure to score, it was perhaps fitting that the home team enjoyed the win on an own goal by an Uzbekistan defender.

Still, South Korea displayed flashes of brilliance on offense, certainly an encouraging sign for a team that in a 1-1 draw only a week ago against Lebanon seemed incapable of putting together even a decent offensive chance.

Son Heung-min, a dynamic striker for Hamburger SV in Bundesliga, finally earned the starting job after playing the previous two qualifiers as a second-half sub. Head coach Choi Kang-hee had refused to pencil the talented 20-year-old into his starting lineup, citing Son's failure to fit into the national team system.

After a pair of lethargic games, in which Son was one of the few bright spots, Choi came under much pressure for benching the talented forward who led his first-division German club with 12 goals in the 2012-13 season. Choi relented and finally unleashed his young horse on Tuesday.

Son replaced the 34-year-old forward Lee Dong-gook, who was heavily criticized for missing a handful of opportunities against Lebanon, in the starting lineup. Though the youngster didn't quite live up to expectations, he did demonstrate why he should remain a regular going forward.

Son Heung-min (R) of South Korea dribbles past Uzbekistan defender Odil Ahmedov during their World Cup qualifier on June 11, 2013, in Seoul. (Yonhap)

His deft flick pass set up Lee Keun-ho in the 19th minute but Lee somehow missed the open net wide from a close range. And in what could have been a defining moment of his international career, Son turned two Uzbekistan defenders into pylons as he dribbled into the box in the 67th minute, before his shot deflected off a third Uzbek player and went out of play.

Midway through the second half, Lee Dong-gook entered the match for Lee Keun-ho, and that moved Son down from the striker position to the wing. It appeared to free up Son, and after the match, he said he enjoyed playing both positions.

"It doesn't matter that I didn't score. I had a lot of fun playing," he said. "We got the win and three points, and that's what matters the most."

   From midfield, Lee Myoung-ju made a strong impression in his international debut. The 23-year-old star for the Pohang Steelers in the South Korean K League Classic replaced veteran Kim Nam-il in the starting lineup, after Kim, who has played in three World Cups, was taken off the roster with a hamstring injury.

Kim has built a career out of shutting down opponent forwards and even earned the famous nickname the "Vacuum Cleaner." Lee's breakout game on both ends earned him the Man of the Match honors, and the 2012 K League Classic Rookie of the Year may have signaled a changing of the guards for the national team.

Lee said after the match he was still "numb" after the win.

"I am just pleased that I got off on the right foot," he said. "I wanted to do my best after getting picked to play in such an important game. I wasn't thinking too much about my national team debut and was just trying to play hard."

   The defense wasn't tested much, as Uzbekistan forwards often resorted to mid- to long-range shots that were kept out by Jung Sung-ryong in the South Korean net. The clean sheet win marked the first time that South Korea blanked an opponent since the 3-0 win over Lebanon last June.

Kim Chang-soo, the starting right wingback, said the defenders were determined not to give up a single goal and added, "We're glad that we lived up to our words."

   Choi, the head coach, said the win should be a turning point for his squad.

"Our players all knew the magnitude of the match, and they had tremendous focus," he said. "Through practices, they've improved their communication. And because we didn't give up any goal, I think they will start playing with more confidence in the future."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

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