Three Points: South Korea, Russia both full of mistakes
CUIABA, Brazil -- Three quick reactions to the 1-1 draw between Russia and South Korea in Group H.
1. Russia save Akinfeev's blushes
The late show was not an impressive revue. The remaining two teams to show their hand in Brazil do not look capable of mounting surges into the further reaches of the tournament. This was a mistake-ridden affair.
Russian and South Korea were made to wait to show their hands until after Brazil and Mexico had played their second matches. It seemed that Tuesday night's fixture was playing second fiddle in Cuiaba; it looked like it might be the match furthest below capacity so far before a deluge of belated arrivals who had clearly been watching that enthralling 0-0 draw between Brazil and Mexico in Forteleza.
Both sides exposed clear failings in Cuiaba. Having gotten into a winning position, South Korea invited on the previously indolent Russians and let substitute Alexander Kerzhakov wipe out the gift that goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev had granted them.
Akinfeev was once wanted by Western Europe's leading clubs but now seems to have forgotten how to catch a ball. Having three times repeatedly palmed away Korean shots that should have presented little danger to him, he made a catastrophic error from another hardly threatening effort. Lee Keun-Ho's shot to Akinfeev's left was straight at the goalkeeper's chest, but Akinfeev somehow patty-caked it into his own goal.
He lay in agonised prostration, echoing Fabio Capello's previous opening match at a World Cup with England. If Rob Green was watching on his holidays, he will know the feeling from his nightmare evening in Rustenberg after Clint Dempsey's speculative shot. Capello must feel he is cursed, while the Koreans, who previously looked incapable of scoring despite some decent buildup play, were blessed by good luck of which they did not take advantage.
Capello will have been heartened by the speed of his team's response to such calamity; Korea led for just six second-half minutes, but there must be questions over why it took catastrophe to wake the Russians from their listlessness.
Belgium, eventually impressive in beating Algeria earlier on Tuesday, would be entitled to think they have little to fear from either of their remaining group opponents. Those who await from Group G will think similar.
2. Koreans need firepower
South Korea, so long a powerhouse of the Asian scene, want to travel beyond the last-16 barrier they could not breach in 2010, the furthest they have been other than the 2002 tournament they hosted.
They have been an ever-present side at the finals since 1986 but truly performed at only one tournament. Hong Myung-Bo, the on-field inspiration for that semifinal team of 12 years ago, is the coach charged with making the jump. A wealth of experience in European leagues ought to be a significant aide to that, though the Taeguk Warriors arrived in Brazil in something of a funk; goals have become a problem, which may not be a surprise to Arsenal fans who may recall the undistinguished Emirates career of Park Chu-Young. He looked just as hapless here, and it was little surprise when Hong withdrew him early in the second half.
Bayer Leverkusen's coveted Son Heung-Min looked far more of a threat. His bursts from a withdrawn position had Koreans and locals alike out of their seats; a wall of high-pitched noise followed every Korean attack. When he was given time to fire at Akinfeev on a first-half burst, they rose as one only for his shot to narrowly miss the TV screen placed high up above the corner flags. In the media tribune, Korea legend Cha Bum-Kun, voted Asian player of the 20th century and working here as a TV commentator, was out of his seat and cursing the heavens.
Ki Sung-Yeung, last season of Sunderland but still owned by Swansea, gave a flawless passing performance in the first half, completing all 48 passes, though he received a booking for a rather dangerous challenge on Samedov.
Hong's team looked far more creative than Capello's dour unit and better acquainted with the conditions, too; they were far more energetic than leaden opponents who looked affected by high humidity. However, they lacked courage in their convictions when shooting chances arrived. If they are to reach the unlikely promised land of the last eight, they need to find a goal scorer. Akinfeev's mistake granted them a lifeline they did not fully grasp.
3. Red machine hardly purring
Capello's stated aim is to build a team capable of delivering a credible performance as hosts of the 2018 finals, though this being Don Fabio, he has not gone for team of striplings. Of his starting lineup, only striker Alexander Kokorin and midfielder Oleg Shatov, both 23, will be younger than 30 when 2018 comes around.
Alan Dzagoev, previously the golden boy, is still just 24, but his flightiness was always unlikely to make him a Capello favourite. He was made to wait, though he and Kerzhakov made a significant difference on arriving in the second half. At last, Russia looked threatening.
There were definite similarities in approach between Capello's England opening match in South Africa -- a 1-1 draw with USA -- and this. Russia lacked adventure and invention while making sure to protect their backline.
They looked somewhat overawed by their first finals appearance in 12 years. Capello will not buying into the liberal attacking trends of this tournament so far. His team's performance supplied supporting evidence for his complaints about the number of foreign players in the Russian Premier League. The Italian is in charge of a group who have the capability of being even more feckless than the English players with whom he got so frustrated.
On the sideline, the coach was a constant presence, relaying constant reminders to press the ball when the opposition were in possession and to make sure the ball was never given away cheaply. At his advanced age, the formula will not change. As with compatriot Giovanni Trapattoni, conservatism only hardens as the years go by.