For the first time in the history of the FIFA World Cup, Korea Republic have advanced into the final sixteen on foreign soil.
After starting with an impressive 2:0 victory over Greece, Korea Republic were sitting atop the group. But a 4:1 loss to Argentina erased the superiority in goal differential and left the Taeguk Jeonsa clinging on for dear life. Heading into the final match against Nigeria, the math wasn’t so difficult: secure at least a draw and hope that Greece don’t do better against the table-topping Albiceleste. But achieving the necessary result wouldn’t be as easy as the calculation. Nigeria would be no push-over and while Argentina are clearly the strongest side in the group, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they would win. That’s because with entry in to the second round more or less squared away, Diego Maradona chose to make seven lineup changes to his squad in order to prepare for the round of sixteen.
Korea Republic had the first chance in the game’s 2nd minute, but it was Nigeria who drew first blood. Kalu Uche outbattled a complacent Cha Du Ri to get on the end of a grounded cross in the 12th minute to give the Super Eagles flight. As it turned out, that was just the first of many defensive errors that Korea Republic would make.
In the 36th minute, Kalu Uche made a serious effort for his second goal of the match. He let loose a line drive from 25 meters out and the shot soared through Korean defenders and past goalkeeper Jung Sung Ryung before eventually hitting off the post to keep the Asians alive.
And just two minutes later, Korea Republic capitalized. Lee Jung Soo turned in a free-kick sent towards the far post, very similar to the way he scored against Greece, to level the scores. With Argentina and Greece still scoreless in Polokwane, Lee’s equaliser meant that Korea Republic were now in position to advance.
In the 49th minute, Park Chu Young further solidified his country’s chances with a great individual effort. Amidst a sea of Nigerian defenders, Park turned nothing into something by winning a foul in an advanced position. He then atoned for his own goal against Argentina by drilling the ball into the side netting between goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and the far post on the 26-meter free kick. But Nigeria wouldn’t bow out so easily.
In the 66th minute, Nigeria found space behind the Korean backline and created a chance for Yakubu Ayegbani. Ayegbani had the ball just 3 meters away from an empty net, but managed to push the shot wide — a task that was probably harder than scoring the equaliser.
Korea Republic made yet another serious mistake just two minutes later. Second-half substitute Kim Nam Il lost possession of the ball inside of his penalty box and foolishly took down Chinedu Obasi from behind. Kim was lucky to get away with just a yellow card, but the luck would run out there. Ayegbani made amends for his earlier miss by dispatching the resulting penalty kick into the net to level the scores and keep Nigeria alive.
When it was known that Argentina had finally broken through by scoring in the 77th minute and again in the 89th minute, the tide of the game drastically changed. Korea Republic were now certain that a draw would see them through, while Nigeria pushed men forward with a seemingly renewed vigor in an attempt to score the goal that would give them the ticket into the second round instead. The final minutes of the match featured various Nigeria players making attempts at goal from distance. Each one missed, but none of them by very much.
Though Korea Republic are through to the knockout stage, they are not without serious questions to ask. Nigeria had picked apart the defense but were ultimately unable to convert enough of the chances. However, the match suggested that an opponent of higher quality — such as second-round opponent Uruguay — would be able to better punish the Koreans for their mistakes. After all, Argentina had pounded out four goals against Korea Republic just five days earlier.
The offense also leaves something to be desired. Though the five goals in the group stage are good, three were from set pieces and the other two were gifts from the defense. Korea Republic lack the cohesive teamwork necessary to threaten the goal with a live ball using just forwards and midfielders. But when the backs move up to help on the attack, it further weakens an already suspect defense.
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Written by Eddie Kim