Son Heung-min showed his enduring class as he steered South Korea to victory over China barely 48 hours after stepping off the plane in the UAE.
The 26-year-old skipper surprisingly started the game, but there was no surprise that he was the catalyst to this Asian Cup victory – winning the penalty which Hwang Ui-jo fired home early on to reward Korea’s dominance.
He then swung in the inviting corner that central defender Kim Min-jae gleefully headed home just after the restart to give his side a 2-0 lead.
Here we take a closer look at his game.
Shorn of their star for the opening two games, the Taegeuk Warriors had looked like an army devoid of its general during two unconvincing victories earned against Group C featherweights Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines.
But entering the arena for the final group game, Korea’s prize fighter delivered two knockout blows to help lead his troops into the knockout stages top of the group, and to victory in far more convincing fashion than they had previously done so.
His trickery was just too much for the Chinese defence as they conceded a penalty for the opener, before his pin-point corner was finished emphatically by Kim.
Influence – Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After jetting to the Emirates following Spurs’ defeat to Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday, you may not have expected to see Son quite so soon, especially after just one training session.
Named in the starting XI, we wondered how long it might take for him to find his feet. No time at all as it turned out, with the schemer at the heart of his side’s rapid start. His 90.5 pass accuracy was near flawless, which included seven key passes, while he was key to both goals.
Carelessness – Not in the sense he was wasteful with the ball, his 90.5 pass accuracy will attest to that, but Son rarely seems to have much regard for himself.
He stayed on the field longer than was necessary after victory had been secured – though the fact he played 89 minutes is more the fault of coach Paulo Bento than his – and it opened him up to being a target for cheap shots from Chinese opponents.
He was fouled on four occasions, with Korea and Tottenham fans likely wincing every time he hit the deck. Bravery and a willingness to play are never bad attributes to have if you’re a professional footballer, but with the amount of travelling he has to do being Korean, you wonder if Son might be better served being more selfish.
The totemic Tottenham forward was a surprise starter in Abu Dhabi, but when you have a player of such breathtaking talent in your side, giving him a runout to find his tournament feet is the perfect way to integrate him.
Hwang was the star of the show as Asian Games gold was secured last summer in Indonesia. But Son is undoubtedly the leader this Korean side look up to in the trenches. And with him leading the charge, you’d be a fool to believe more gold won’t follow at the beginning of February.
Iran and Iraq played out a feisty yet ultimately frustrating 0-0 draw at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai as the highest ranked Asian team in FIFA (Iran, 29th) and Lions of Mesopotamia remained unbeaten at the Asian Cup.
After free-scoring victories for both teams in their previous two games, this was a very different encounter, with both teams’ defences on top.
Here are three key talking points.
NOT QUITE THE FIREWORKS OF FOUR YEARS AGO
These two sides clashed at the tournament four years ago in the quarter-finals, as the Lions of Mesopotamia won an epic knockout encounter 7-6 on penalties.
That was after the game had required extra time, with four goals scored in the additional 30 minutes after ending 1-1 after 90, with penalties forced following a memorable 3-3 draw.
This was hardly set up for a similar show as it was a dead rubber in terms of meaning, with both sides having done their jobs already by winning their opening two games.
There was still plenty of bite however, with feisty challenges flying about frequently and lots of players rolling theatrically around as referee Ravshan Irmatov had his work cut out – both sides certainly wanted the bragging rights of a group win.
But it wasn’t to be and the duo will now head into the knockout rounds looking to show their class once again.
IRAQ SHOW DEFENSIVE SOLIDITY
There wasn’t an awful lot of chat about Iraq coming into the tournament – with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea among the burning favourites for the Asian Cup crown.
But the Lions of Mesopotamia have roared in the UAE and impressed many neutrals. Heading into the knockout rounds they may not court the same attention as the big boys, but they have an exciting forward line that can cause problems, while their rigid defensive display against previously free-scoring Iran should make the other teams sit up and take notice.
In a bitty game that offered little in the way of attacking guile or ingenuity, the likes of Ali Adnan and Ahmad Ibrahim stood like giants at the back – with the late introductions of Mehdi Taremi and Ashkan Dejagah from the bench showing just how much Iran coach Carlos Queiroz wanted to win this one.
Having earned plaudits so far for their attacking instincts in 3-2 and 3-0 victories over Vietnam and Yemen respectively, Srecko Katanec’s side might well cause problems deeper in the tournament with their stoic rearguard strength.
KEEPING THEIR POWDER DRY?
The robust Sardar Azmoun started this clash, but Queiroz opted to keep Taremi and Dejagah on the bench, perhaps content with the talent he had at his disposal in the starting XI.
But both Taremi – lynchpin in the 5-0 opening night thrashing of Yemen – and former Fulham forward Dejagah were eventually summoned from the substitute’s bench in the second half to try and belatedly breathe life into Iran’s performance.
With passage to the knockouts secured by several sides coming into the final round of group games, it provided a host of coaches with a catch 22 situation – maintain their fine momentum or save their stars for the business end of the tournament.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento went one way in selecting star Spurs forward Son Heung-min in a powerful starting line-up, which paid dividends as the Taegeuk Warriors marched to a 2-0 victory over China. Queiroz went the other way and the result was a dire, unspectacular stalemate, although time will tell if the rest for the majority of his star names will pay off.
The Taegeuk Warriors had battled to unimpressive 1-0 victories in their first two group games in the UAE, but Son featured in a surprisingly strong line-up and created both goals at Al Nahyan Stadium.
He tricked a foul out of a Chinese defender for the first goal, Hwang Ui-jo netting the opener from the spot after Son was fouled. He then swung in the corner from which Kim Min-jae thumped a header home for the second goal.
The win saw Korea top Group C, and here are our key talking points from the encounter.
RETURN OF PRODIGAL SON INSPIRES KOREA
Just like they had been at the Asian Games, Korea were shorn of their superstar in the initial stages of the Asian Cup – with Tottenham titan Son belatedly joining up with his international colleagues this week.
Coach Paulo Bento suggested pre-match that Son would play no part as he adapted to his new surroundings – both sides were already guaranteed to finish in the top two before kick-off, so why take a risk?
But the former Portugal boss selected Son as skipper in a surprisingly strong Korea starting XI and reaped the rewards as the Spurs star shone in a virtuoso display.
Korea were resplendent in their red shirts, looking dangerous every time they poured forward, with Son pulling the China strings.
He was felled for the penalty, converted expertly by Hwang, and swung in the corner from which Kim’s bullet header gave Bento’s side a two-goal cushion. The favourite Son is home, and the rest of the tournament had better watch out.
TAEGEUK WARRIORS READY FOR TITLE BATTLE
Korea have been far from flawless so far, but in a game predicted to be a dead rubber, it was anything but as both sides went toe to toe with each other for Group C supremacy.
As can often be the case at major tournaments, the elite sides do not always soar from the start. That has certainly been the case with the Taegeuk Warriors, who had to battle through their first two games to record 1-0 victories over the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan.
It was something of a similar story for their U-23s at last year’s Asian Games, falling to a 2-1 defeat against Malaysia and a nervy 1-0 win required against Kyrgyzstan to emerge from their group, after an emphatic 6-0 blitz of Bahrain in their opener.
After that they never looked back as the gold medal was secured. With Son in situ and looking in sync with his team-mates, you’d be brave not to back them for glory again in the UAE.
WU IS ME
Without their own star man in Wu Lei, China look limited. They still have their talismanic veteran skipper Zheng Zhi to lead them into the knockouts, but unless Shanghai SIPG sensation Wu can recover from a collarbone injury he’s been nursing since the opening game against Kyrgyzstan, prospects of glory are slim.
Korea, Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the favourites for the Asian Cup title, with Marcello Lippi’s side and everyone else definitely a level below. Wu remains with Team Dragon in the Emirates, but even with him fit for the knockout rounds, they face a tall task to scale the heights and compete with the tournament’s giants.