(Asian Cup) Talented but directionless, S. Korea take humiliating exit

SEOUL, By staging improbable late comebacks to reach the last four at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar, South Korea earned the moniker "zombie football." In moments when their chances of winning seemed all but gone, the Taegeuk Warriors refused to die and came back to unlikely life. The zombie was laid to rest Tuesday night near Doha, however, as South Korea, world No. 23, got knocked out of the semifinals with a 2-0 loss to 87th-ranked Jordan. South Korea, coached by Jurgen Klinsmann, were trying to win their first Asian Cup crown since 1960. For a long-time AFC powerhouse, the drought is rather puzzling. They have been in the final only four times over the past 64 years, most recently in 2015 in Australia. As wasted opportunities go, this year's semifinal exit will loom large for years to come, considering the level of talent South Korea boasted on its squad. South Korea featured Tottenham Hotspur captain Son Heung-min, widely considered the best Asian player in football today. Joining him were other Europe-based stars who were all in great form before the Asian Cup: Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain and Kim Min-jae of Bayern Munich. Before joining the German champions, Kim was named Serie A's best defender and led Napoli to their first Italian title in 33 years. With Son and Kim in tow, it could be argued South Korea had the best attacker and best defender at the Asian Cup. However, neither had a particularly strong tournament. Son tied Lee for the team lead with three goals, but none came in open play. Son scored two penalties and one free kick goal. Predictably, Son drew multiple defenders whenever he had the ball in the danger zone and had trouble finding space to create chances for himself or others. Kim didn't even play in the Jordan loss, after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament late against Australia in the quarterfinals. South Korea were trailing 1-0 then, and Kim was cautioned for getting into some testy tuss le match with an opponent who was trying to kill time. South Korea rallied for a 2-1 win, and Kim's loss of composure proved costly as South Korea had no answer against Jordan's press and speedy counterattacks. Even with Kim in the lineup, however, South Korea conceded eight goals in their first five matches. They went from not giving up any goal in seven straight matches before the Asian Cup to allowing three goals in one match against lowly Malaysia, ranked 130th in the world. South Korea trailed in five of their six matches, their 3-1 win over Bahrain in the first group match being the lone exception. Playing from behind so often is never a recipe for success in a tournament, no matter how much excitement it can create for fans. The first such moment came in the round of 16 against Saudi Arabia. Cho Gue-sung's header with about two minutes from the final whistle knotted the score at 1-1 and South Korea prevailed 4-2 on penalties after 30 minutes of extra time solved nothing. Then against Australia, Hw ang Hee-chan converted a penalty six minutes into second-half stoppage time to tie things up at 1-1. Son then scored the go-ahead goal with a free kick in extra time for another nail-biting win. Playing 240-plus minutes of football in high-pressure knockout matches over a four-day span finally caught up to South Korea. They barely put up a fight against Jordan, recording zero shot on goal with midfielder Lee Jae-sung striking the right goal post with a first-half header. Jordan consistently won 50-50 battles for balls and pounced on South Korean turnovers to score their two goals. While key players themselves didn't step up and others were too mistake-prone, Klinsmann has also been under fire for his failure to get more out of such a talented squad. His detractors argue that the whole didn't end up being greater than the sum of its parts due to Klinsmann's lack of tactical acumen and inability to make in-game adjustments. Klinsmann has been in the hot seat virtually his entire South Korean tenure, which be gan with some insipid performances in March 2023. Klinsmann managed to silence his critics with some convincing wins over the likes of Singapore, China and Vietnam in the fall, but gave them more ammunition with Tuesday's loss. A team with Son and Hwang, who have a combined 22 goals this Premier League season, ready to take feeds from Lee Kang-in, a highly gifted playmaker, shouldn't have had this much trouble scoring goals. Players themselves have to shoulder the blame but the coach is also at fault for not putting them in position to succeed. South Korea had very little flow or structure to their offensive process. Relying on Son or Lee to generate chances with their individual skills became too predictable for opponents. One big knock against Klinsmann during his time in South Korea has been that he doesn't have tactics and he simply lets his players do their thing. If the team had done well, Klinsmann could have been lauded for empowering his players. In the aftermath of Tuesday's loss, Klinsmann is b eing portrayed as a clueless coach who didn't know what to do with the talent he had on his hand. The loss to Jordan was telling not just because of the final score, but because of how helpless South Korea looked even though it was the teams' second meeting of the tournament. Jordan nearly shocked South Korea in their Group E match on Jan. 20 and only settled for a 2-2 draw after a late own goal. The near-loss should have taught South Korea something. And since Kim Min-jae wasn't going to be available in the semifinal, they should have been even more vigilant in their own end. South Korean football analyst Park Chan-ha said Klinsmann's team didn't come prepared. "Jordan must have gained confidence from their first match against Klinsmann and they must have felt they could beat South Korea as long as they didn't make the same mistake," Park said. "On the other hand, South Korea didn't look like they were ready at all, even though they had that draw in the first meeting and didn't have Kim Min-jae for this one." Klinsmann said he was "angry" after the loss because he felt his message to the team had fallen on deaf ears. "I am very disappointed. I am angry because we should have done better tonight," he said. "Our pregame talk was very clear on how to accept battles in one-on-one situations, how we wanted to approach tactically right away. We were not existent in the first 20-30 minutes. Jordan deserved this win. They played more aggressive than we did. They wanted it more." Klinsmann has also faced criticism during this tournament for smiling at inopportune moments -- after his team conceded a goal or, in Tuesday's case, lost a match. This may seem rather petty but every little thing tends to get magnified when the team doesn't live up to expectations. Klinsmann said he smiled after the Jordan match because he wanted to congratulate his counterpart, Hussein Ammouta, for the job well done. "For me, it's normal to congratulate the other coach when his team was better in a game. This is a sign of respect," h e said. "If you say I shouldn't smile at someone who deserves compliment in that moment, maybe we have different approaches." Klinsmann said a coach is "always responsible for how a tournament goes for the team" but added he is not going anywhere. "I plan to analyze this tournament, go back to Korea and obviously talk with the federation about what was good and what was not so good in the tournament," he said. "I think there was a lot of good stuff that we saw. This is a team that's growing, a team that still has to develop toward the World Cup in the U.S., Mexico and Canada over the next two and a half years. A very difficult qualifying campaign, obviously, so there's a lot of work ahead of us. Other than that, I am not thinking about anything." Source: Yonhap News Agency