WCQ Asia review

Fightbacks and late scraps in Asia

March 27, 2013
By John Duerden
(Archive)

Drama? Even the Korean soap operas that are taking over large parts of Asia can't compete with this final round of the continent's qualification for the 2014 World Cup. The latest installment had the lot – missed penalties, 96th minute winners, fightbacks and fights - and nobody knows just how the loose ends are going to be tied up in June.

Son Heung-min celebrates after scoring the winner for South Korea against Qatar
GettyImagesSon Heung-min is an explosive talent for South Korea

A 2-1 defeat in Jordan meant that Japan missed their chance to become the first team to qualify for Brazil, but such is the team's advantage at the top of Group B, it is only a matter of time. But while strolling to the World Cup is all well and good, it doesn't get the heart racing.

Seoul World Cup Stadium went wild with delight in the 96th minute of the qualifier between Korea and Qatar as Son Heung-min tapped home from close range to win the game 2-1 for the hosts.

Even the Korean journalists were mentioning Fergie Time and Manchester United are one of the few big boys in Europe not to be linked of late with the Hamburg attacker. All of Son's nine goals this season for Hamburg in the Bundesliga were from further out and some have been genuinely spectacular, but none will have been as rewarding or have raised the roof quite so much.

The 20 year-old still does not have the trust of coach Choi Kang-hee but has saved his boss from blushes and perhaps even something more serious as, after a point from the last two outings, this was a game that Korea needed to win.

Qatar defended in depth, in numbers and with much effect. It was only in the second half when the visitors realised that the Korean backline was not up to much that the team started to attack and even post-equaliser - which came from the talented Khalfan Ibrahim (2006 Asian Player of the Year) just three minutes after Lee Keun-ho (the current holder of that award) had headed the hosts ahead - they continued to push forward for a winner.

After lots of possession but not much incision, Son, whose every appearance on the giant video display had been greeted by screams of delight from early in the game, was introduced. His direct running and pace caused immediate problems but it seemed to be too little too late. Until the final second, the highlight of his cameo was his involvement in a mass brawl provoked by Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung, in turn provoked by what he saw as persistent timewasting by the visitors.

That caused the Japanese referee, who only just managed to get out of the way of a bottle thrown from the crowd late in the game, to add on just enough time for Lee Dong-gook's shot on the turn to bounce down off the crossbar and Son to tap home.

"It was all made for me by Lee, it was his goal really," said the beaming young star after the game. "I am just delighted with that we won. We kept going right until the end."

For a time, Korea were back on top of the group but Uzbekistan reclaimed that spot after squeezing past Lebanon 1-0 in Tashkent thanks to a goal from Server Djeparov, who plays his club football in the K League. Lebanon are now out of it.

The top two from each group of five go to Brazil. Finish third and you take the play-off route. The Uzbeks have eleven from six, while Korea have a point less from a game less. Qatar and Iran both have seven points and both teams meet in Doha in the next round. It should be some game between two teams with little love for each other. Qatar have to win while Team Melli, having played a game less, can't afford to lose.

It was Group A that was supposed to be too tight for even Shinji Kagawa to slip a ball through but after the events of Tuesday evening, Group B is suddenly no place for the faint-hearted.

Japan are still way out in front even after losing 2-1 in Jordan when a draw would have confirmed a place at the 2014 World Cup, but it is the race for second that is going to be the subject of endless debate and speculation until it is all over in June. Just two points separates Jordan in second and Iraq in fifth.

Australia were supposed to be fighting it out at the top with Japan, not roughing it with the others but six points from five games has the Socceroos in third. It could have been worse as the Aussies were 2-0 down at home to Oman but a typical Tim Cahill header and a late Brett Holman goal gave them a point in Sydney.

Mark Schwarzer
GettyImagesMark Schwarzer's club future is settled, but potentially at the cost of his international spot.

Despite the team's poor start, much store was set in the fact that three of the last four games were at home, but these are games that still have to be won and the first has not been. Now Australia need something from their next game - in Japan.

Japan's loss in Jordan was not a shock despite their 6-0 loss in East Asia in 2012. Jordan have already accounted for the Socceroos in front of their passionate home support and knew that they had to win.

"We had a mission and we succeeded," said Jordan's coach Adnan Hamad. "It was a high-level match from both teams and we did our best and managed to play against one of the best teams."

Opposite number Alberto Zaccheroni was left to lament poor defending from the Asian champions. Khalil Baniateyah headed home the opener for the hosts just before the break and just before the hour mark Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim waltzed past two defenders to slot the ball past Eiji Kawashima.

Even then, Japan almost snatched the point that would have sent them to Brazil. Shinji Kagawa pulled a goal back almost immediately with a smart shot from a smart Hiroshi Kiyotake pass. Moments later, Atsuto Uchida was brought down in the area only for Amer Shafee to save smartly from Yasuhito Endo, though the midfielder's eye for the shot could have been distracted by laser beams that seemed to be pointed in his direction.

For coach Zaccheroni, it was a frustrating rather than a disastrous evening. Japan will qualify in June but that is the only thing that can be said with certainty after another amazing evening of Asian action.