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Jun 22, 2014

Defensive woes haunt Korea

The heart of the defence left Korea exposed.

At half-time in Porto Alegre, South Korea were looking at their worst ever day at the World Cup. Sure, the 1954 tournament wasn't exactly a success but losing 9-0 to Hungary, then the best team around, was no disgrace for a team of soldiers that arrived in Europe the evening before kick-off after the most arduous of trips. Even then, the players still had to sew numbers on their own shirts.

There was a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Guus Hiddink's Dutch in 1998 that prompted the mid-tournament departure of coach Cha Bum-keun, but that came in Europe at the hands of a potential champion. Facing the prospect of a similar scoreline at the hands of Algeria was not exactly pleasant. The second half fight-back to ensure that the game ended in a more respectable looking 4-2 defeat was welcome but also served to show that, had Korea not played so poorly in the first half, this was a game that could have been won.

But you don't win by conceding four goals and in terms of defensive performances, the first 45 minutes were painful for fans at home [as if getting up at 4am to watch the game on Monday morning was not bad enough.]

From the start, Korea were blown away by a passionate, energetic and hard-working Algerian team that was set on attack. From the first few moments when Kim Young-gwon was lucky to get away with a rash challenge in the penalty area, to the half-time break, it was a story of complete African dominance.

Fans in Russia must surely have been asking why their team did not do more to test this backline. After all, the most perfunctory research would have shown that Korea had issues in this regard. And the Taeguk Warriors were even good enough to provide a final reminder when losing 4-0 to Ghana in Miami earlier this month.

Here, the first goal was well-taken by Islam Slimani after the defence was undone by a simple ball over the top. The less said about the second, headed home direct from the corner with goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryeong all at sea, the better, and the third was well-taken but again there were plenty of red shirts around to deal with the threat. They failed to do so.

The central defensive area has been a problem for the country for years, perhaps ever since Hong Myung-bo, now coach, and his partners from 2002 stepped down. Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon are held to be the future, two centre-backs of the classier variety, but get caught out of position or concentration too often, although they don't always receive the protection they should.

By the time Korea had a shot on target, or had even entered the Algerian area, they were three goals down. Going forward there was nothing, the entire team seemingly shellshocked by what was unfolding. When Ki Seung-yeung, so elegant against Russia, is giving the ball away then you know that all is not going according to plan.

At least it improved in the second half, though it could hardly get worse. When Son Heung-min, lively once again, smartly pulled a goal back, there was hope. Algeria were pinned back and Korea were putting pressure on for the first time. Ki went close with a long-range effort and then the Africans were clearing off the line but then more lackadaisical defending threw a spanner in the attacking machine that was finally spluttering to life though the combination play that led to Yacine Brahimi's goal was easy on the eye.

There was no coming back from that, despite the sweat of the Korean team. Whatever happens, they never give up; the fighting spirit was there, the energy and intent were finally there but it was too little too late.

Hopes of a third second round appearance in four World Cups are slim and like Japan and Iran, Korea no longer control their own destiny. Even against an already qualified Belgium, victory is unlikely in the midst of such defending.

It will come as no surprise to fans back home though the disappointment will be no less painful for all that. At the World Cup, teams take advantage of opponents' weaknesses and few have done that to such devastating effect as Algeria in a first half that will linger long in the Korean memory.