S. Korea take point, positives in opener
South Korea had won their past three opening games at World Cups but won't be too disappointed with a 1-1 draw against Russia in Group H, a result they would have accepted at kickoff. A lot of good luck gave the Koreans the lead, while a stroke of misfortune cancelled it out just six minutes later.
For Korea, it was about avoiding defeat, not because of some detailed strategy on how to get out of an open group, but to reverse the recent trend of poor results and defensive disasters and lay a foundation for games against Algeria and Belgium. Losing an opener is always a blow, but the way things had been going it would have been devastating.
The first half wasn't one to persuade viewers in Europe to stay up later than usual or those in East Asia to scream and shout over breakfasts, but it was a reasonable one for Korea. Confidence is fragile when you have a young team that had lost four of its past five, failing to score in all those defeats. Last week's was the worst, a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Ghana in Miami.
Keeping it tight at the back was an obvious mantra. Perhaps too much respect was given to Fabio Capello's men, but given the trauma of recent months, it was understandable. For the first time this year, South Korea put in a strong defensive performance.
It was cagey, cautious and conservative with chances rarer than a spare seat on the Seoul subway at rush hour. But even so, had Son Heung-min been wearing his shooting boots and not sent a couple of decent opportunities in the general direction of Rio, then it all could have been very different. The newly blonde forward was looking livelier for the national team than of late.
Ki Sung-yueng was the standout for the Koreans, and perhaps the game in general. Swansea City fans wondered why the midfielder had been sent to Sunderland on loan when he began to shine at the Stadium of Light, and in the slightly warmer surroundings of Cuiaba, Ki rose above the fray. Always ready to receive, the 25-year-old simply never gave the ball away, his composure in possession noticeable.
The second half was more open -- although that wasn't too difficult of a task -- and a cagey game became interesting, then absorbing and in the end, exciting. The breakthrough came, unsurprisingly, with a mistake, and what a mistake it was.
Neither goalkeeper had looked comfortable facing shots from outside the area, spilling the ball on a number of occasions. If your money was on a howler, though, Jung Sung-ryong would've been your man. South Korea's No. 1 has been looking over his shoulder for quite some time, especially following a major mistake against -- ironically enough -- Russia in a friendly last November.
- Brewin: S. Korea, Russia full of mistakes
But it was Igor Akinfeev who would commit the gaffe. A speculative shot from Lee Keun-ho was heading directly for the Russian's head, only for the experienced custodian to somehow throw the ball over his shoulder and into the net upon attempting to catch it.
It was the breakthrough Korea needed, and with a little more composure the team could have kept it tight and looked for a second on the counter to kill the game. But it all got a little frantic, centre-back Hong Jeong-ho left injured and within a couple of minutes Russia were level.
Jung again spilled a shot, but this was a good save and the ball was immediately cleared. The problem for South Korea was that it hit the chest of Andrey Eshchenko, hopeful Korean defenders claimed it had come off his arm, and another substitute, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, made no mistake.
Losing a lead fairly late is always tough, but Korea would have taken a draw before the game. There was also much encouragement to take from the match. The defence held firm and there were lively performances from the likes of Ki and Son. If captain Koo Ja-cheol and striker Park Chu-young can similarly step it up for the Algeria game, the one that was always going to be vital, then a third appearance in the past four knockout stages is very much a possibility.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.