(Asian Cup) Sloppy S. Korea run out of gas, fall short of ending long title drought

SEOUL, Playing heavy minutes in high-intensity matches over a short stretch of time finally caught up to South Korea at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar on Tuesday, as they dropped to Jordan 2-0 in the semifinals. With the loss at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha, South Korea's dreams of winning their first Asian Cup title since 1960 crashed and burned. South Korea came into this match having played over 240 minutes worth of football in a four-day span last week. In the round of 16, South Korea were moments away from losing to Saudi Arabia before scoring a last-gasp equalizer. They prevailed 4-2 on penalties. It was much the same story in the quarterfinals, where they trailed Australia 1-0 and then tied things up with a 96th-minute penalty. Son Heung-min's extra-time free kick goal secured a 2-1 win and set up a rematch against Jordan in the semifinals. And they had three days of rest before Tuesday's match. Jordan had an extra day between the round of 16 and the quarterfinals, and they never needed any extra-time drama to get this far. South Korea head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had praised his players' drive and determination to end the 64-year title drought. Captain Son Heung-min insisted he and his teammates weren't going to make any excuses and keep on battling. Heavy legs ultimately did them in, but fatigue alone doesn't begin to explain the team's sloppy play against Jordan. Jordan, ranked 87th, had nearly stunned world No. 23 South Korea in their Group E match on Jan. 20, only to settle for a 2-2 draw after getting charged with a late own goal. Jordan established their physical presence early and pushed the opposing defense hard with effective pressing. They stuck to much the same script on Tuesday and it worked to perfection from their perspective. Jordan recorded the match's first six shots while controlling the run of play. Only some stellar performance by goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo kept the match scoreless in the opening 45 minutes, with South Korean midfield er Lee Jae-sung hitting the right post with a header just past the half-hour mark in what ended up being his team's closest chance. Two ghastly turnovers cost South Korea in the second half. First, it was Mousa Al-Tamari picking off a careless back pass by Park Yong-woo intended for center back Kim Young-gwon. Al-Tamari read the play early and intercepted the ball before it reached Kim, and sprinted toward the box for a breakaway with Yazan Al-Naimat following him on the right side. South Korean defenders never got back to establish position as Al-Naimat converted Al-Tamari's pass for the 1-0 lead in the 53rd minute. Al-Tamari got himself on the score sheet 13 minutes later with some great individual effort. Hwang In-beom got his pocket picked in his own zone and the ball popped out toward Al-Tamari, who went all the way from his side of the halfway line and toward the box untouched. He had plenty of open space from just outside the middle of the box, and unleashed a left-footed shot into the bottom left corner. South Korea missed Bayern Munich center back Kim Min-jae, who was ruled ineligible after getting his second yellow card of the tournament against Australia. Though he is widely regarded as South Korea's best defender, his absence was far from the only reason that South Korea lost Tuesday. South Korea had conceded eight goals in their previous five matches before Tuesday with Kim on the pitch. South Korea conceded a goal in each of their six matches in Qatar and trailed in five of those half-dozen games. The loss meant one of the most puzzling droughts in South Korean sports will continue for at least until 2027, when Saudi Arabia will host the next Asian Cup. Despite having been one of the continent's top football powers for decades, South Korea have not won the top AFC tournament for 64 years. This year's squad carried high expectations, with their biggest names all peaking at the right time for their European clubs. Up front, the team featured two in-form scorers from the Premier League: Son H eung-min of Tottenham Hotspur and Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers. With Kim Min-jae anchoring defense and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain acting as the creative engine on offense, South Korea were expected to do some serious damage. Instead, this golden generation of talent has now gone to waste. Klinsmann has been in the hot seat for almost his entire South Korean tenure, which began with a couple of uninspiring matches in March 2023. He appeared to have won some fans back as South Korea worked some last-minute magic to reach the last four in Qatar, but his detractors still refused to give the coach any credit for that run, instead pointing to players' individual efforts as the main reason. The constant knock against Klinsmann has been his lack of tactical brilliance. He is known more as a motivator-type coach, and his relentless optimism offered some levity to the solemn, pressure-packed pursuit of the long-awaited title. But motivation could only take South Korea so far. Klinsmann's team ha d no answer to Jordan's press and no late drama was in the offing Tuesday. Source: Yonhap News Agency