|Korea head coach Choi Kang-hee looks on during his team’s loss to Croatia. (Yonhap News)|
South Korean men’s soccer head coach Choi Kang-hee had said his team’s friendly match against Croatia would serve as “a very good test.”
Choi’s players flunked that test spectacularly, and the result has only left more questions than answers.
Croatia pounded South Korea 4-0 on Wednesday in London, scoring two goals in each half of the overwhelming win that exposed South Korea’s glaring holes both on offense and defense.
Croatia is ranked 10th in the world, 24 spots above South Korea on the FIFA table, but the discrepancy in the quality of their play seemed even larger.
South Korea had a promising start to the game.
Son Heung-min, who’s enjoying the best season of his young career in Germany’s first-division Bundesliga, and Ki Sung-yueng, who has emerged as a key player for Swansea City in his first English Premier League season, both had decent chances in the first 10 minutes.
Then the offense went silent, with players growing increasingly sloppy with their ball control. Other than Ji Dong-won’s strike in the 38th that forced a tough punching save, Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa was hardly tested.
South Korea’s defense, which had given Choi much headache in recent matches, was embarrassed by the crafty, powerful and creative Croatians.
The second goal of the match, scored by Darilo Srna, was particularly humiliating for the South Koreans.
The Croatian dribbled up the right side, with defensive back Choi Jae-soo back-pedaling on the play. As Srna faked a pass to a teammate flying down the right wing, Choi turned in that direction ― giving Srna just enough space to float a seemingly harmless shot over the helpless South Korean defense and past the flat-footed goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong.
Luka Modric, the Real Madrid midfielder, single-handedly broke down the South Korean backline with a nifty setup on his team’s third score.
He threaded a pass between two defenders to find the charging Nikica Jelavic, who then fended off a third defender for the goal.
By the time Mladen Petric made it 4-0 with about five minutes remaining, the South Koreans appeared to have lost their will to even try.
South Korea is now winless in its last four international matches, dating back to last September. It’s an unsettling trend for a country seeking its eighth consecutive World Cup appearance.
With four games left in the final round of the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2014 World Cup, South Korea is in second place in Group A, one point behind Uzbekistan with one game in hand.
South Korea must finish in the top two to earn an automatic berth in the quadrennial tournament. A third-place finish will mean extra playoff matches.
Given its recent performance, though, South Korea could be in for a tough battle to secure an automatic spot.
During the current winless skid, which includes a draw against Uzbekistan and losses to Iran and Australia, the defense has been the root of the problem. Against Croatia, the offense performed a bit of a disappearing act, too.
To start the match, Choi Kang-hee used Ji and Son as his two attackers, hoping the youngsters would provide some much needed spark up front.
Choi had taken much flak for sticking with another forward combination ― Jeonbuk striker Lee Dong-gook and Celta Vigo forward Park Chu-young ― that rarely worked in previous matches.
When Ji and Son failed to live up to expectations, Choi went back to the Lee-Park duo for the second half. Yet again, neither Lee nor Park did much damage, with Park in particular being practically invisible.
Though both are capable goal-scorers, Lee and Park have not complemented each other because their styles of play clash.
Throughout their careers, both have been finishers usually on the receiving ends of passes, rather than creators who can play alongside a goal-scorer. That they’re both relatively slow-footed hasn’t helped.
After the match, Choi admitted his experiment had failed but said it was a learning experience for the team.
“I had set out to do some experimenting with our offensive tactics, including playing Park and Lee at different positions up front,” Choi said. “I learned today that we have to outnumber our opponents in the midfield to take control.”
Choi reiterated his earlier comment that he will stick with essentially the same roster for the four remaining World Cup qualification matches.
“We will build on our experience from today’s match and earlier games to try to develop more cohesion,” the coach said. “Our upcoming opponents (Qatar, Lebanon, Uzbekistan and Iran) will play more defensive games than Croatia, and we will have to find our offensive combination.”