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Malaysia pipped by South Korea in AFC U23 quarterfinal

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Han Seung-Gyu shattered Malaysia's dreams with a late goal for South Korea to send Ong Kim Swee's side home from the AFC U23 Championship on Saturday evening after a 2-1 quarterfinal victory in Kunshan, China.

It sets up a semifinal meeting for the Koreans with Uzbekistan, who thrashed Japan 4-0 in the last eight.

Ulsan Hyundai midfielder Han burst through the tiring Malaysian defence to claim the winner in the 85th minute of an enthralling clash.

Ong's team had fought back from going behind to an improbably early goal before losing in the most heartbreaking fashion. Cho Jae-Wan had given the Koreans the lead in the 12th second into the game.

But N. Thanabalan's 67th-minute header pulled Malaysia level and looked set to take the teams into extra-time before Han's killer blow sealed the fate of both nations.

Much of the talk before kickoff was of the historical significance of the game for a nation that has had more than its fair share of footballing disappointment in recent decades.

Perhaps not since booking their place at the 1980 Olympics -- a ticket that was never punched due to the United States-led boycott of the Moscow-hosted Games -- has Malaysian football so anticipated an encounter on the continental stage.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, nerves were obvious prior to kick-off and they were even more apparent in the opening seconds as the cool-headed Koreans took a stunningly early lead.

There were just 11 seconds on the clock when Cho Jae-Wan's volley from the Korean left seared past Haziq, crashed against the inside of the post and crossed the line.

A goal down with not even a minute on the clock, the omens were ominous for Malaysia.

But despite the setback, Malaysia settled and steadily established themselves. Nor Azam highlighted his eye for a pass when he teed up Safawi Rashid to skip beyond the Korean defence before firing off a shot that Kang Hyeon-Mu gathered.

The Koreans' physical superiority ensured they retained the upperhand, with Lee Keun-ho -- his side's two-goal hero in their recent win over Australia -- causing problems in the air, while Cho was a constant menace.

Malaysia, though, retained a threat of their own. Safawi forced Kang to save with his face in the dying seconds of the half.

Six minutes after the restart, Adam Nor Azlin should have done better than blaze over the bar when the Koreans struggled to clear their lines. Midway through the second half the equaliser came. Nor Azam fed the ball to the ever-willing Safawi and his delightful low curling cross towards the near post was headed home by the diving Thanabalan.

The goal was no less than Malaysia deserved, but it provoked the Koreans into raising their game once more. Han's shot was spilled by Haziq before the goalkeeper immediately made up for his handling error to deny Lee, pushing the ball away for a corner. 

But with five minutes remaining came the killer blow as Han -- fittingly for a player who has been influential for the Koreans throughout much of this tournament -- stormed through the defensive line before keeping his balance to score from an angle.

The goal ensured natural order was preserved as the Koreans advanced to the semifinals for the second tournament in a row.

But Malaysia will depart China with plenty of reasons to be optimistic ahead of November's AFF Suzuki Cup. Many of Ong's squad are likely to be drafted into the senior squad after their inability to win a game in 2017.

Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch

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