“Now the tournament really starts,” South Korea manager Jurgen Klinsmann remarked after South Korea unconvincingly reached the knockout stage of the Asian Cup on Friday.
He said it with all the conviction of a turkey in mid-December saying “now Christmas really starts”, for South Korea are essentially in the midst of a crisis.
That crisis is one of both confidence and of leadership, with Klinsmann’s performance under severe scrutiny. He only took the job last February — his first international gig since his time with the USA, who he left in November 2016 after a disastrous start to their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign — and results and performances have been inconsistent pretty much since day one.
He has been lambasted for using what his critics call an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation and relying too heavily on the team’s two star players, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, but without a coherent pressing/tactical plan.
In fact, he can’t seem to do much right at the moment — he ruefully smiled at the end of a catastrophic 3-3 draw against Malaysia and was castigated for that too.
South Korea started the tournament well enough. Two goals from Lee gave them a 3-1 victory over Bahrain in a group they were expected to breeze through.
They then should have progressed to the last 16 by beating Jordan, ranked 87th in the world (one place below Bahrain). Instead they needed a stoppage time own goal to salvage a 2-2 draw.
They then should have topped the group on the way to the knockout stages by beating Malaysia, ranked 130 in the world (below Zimbabwe and just above Solomon Islands and Rwanda). Instead they conceded an equaliser in the 15th minute of stoppage time to draw 3-3, having previously come from 2-1 down lead 3-2 with a 94th minute Son Heung-min penalty.
By flunking in humiliating fashion and finishing second in Group E behind Bahrain, South Korea actually avoided a titanic clash with Japan (who themselves stuttered and finished second in their group) in the last 16.
But instead they will face Saudi Arabia who breezed through their group and of course not so long ago conquered Argentina at the World Cup. If South Korea turn their form around and beat Saudi Arabia, Australia probably await in the quarter-finals (the Australians will face Indonesia in their last-16 tie). Klinsmann’s task is a sizeable one, so while he says the tournament is only just beginning, in truth it may end for South Korea on Tuesday.
Frenetic and panicked fans certainly worry that it might. Many have abused players so strongly on social media that Son had to plead for calm following the Malaysia draw after seeing “comments that I can’t even repeat”.
With six goals conceded in three games, only one victory — despite taking the lead in all three — and a couple of awful results against what on paper should be vastly inferior teams, South Korea’s Asian Cup campaign so far has been distinctly underwhelming, although it can be salvaged.
Son, like his manager, tried to put the bravest of faces on the Malaysia debacle, stating the result was good for football in the continent.
“It is really good that this competition is becoming even harder,” he said with a straight face. “It was a tough result to take but it’s a big credit to the Malaysian team, they fought until the end and I was very pleased for Asian football.”
South Korea’s problems — “good for Asian football” or not — have been mounting for a while and injury issues have not helped.
Veteran keeper Kim Seung-gyu suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury in training after the win over Bahrain, which rocked the team. His replacement Jo Hyeon-woo has been at fault for a couple of goals but has hardly been helped by a chaotic defence.
They have also been without the injured Hwang Hee-chan, the in-form Wolverhampton Wanderers striker who is sixth in the Premier League scoring charts with 10 goals, although he returned off the bench against Malaysia. Goalscoring has not been a problem, though.
South Korea may not have even lost a game yet but it has all been too much to take for a fanbase desperate for success. They have not actually lifted the Asian Cup since 1960 when they won the second version of the tournament (having also lifted the inaugural trophy in 1956). And that tournament involved only four teams and 80-minute games, so even then the validity is question.
Regardless, since then it has been a tale of woe, with defeats in finals (1972, 1980, 1988 and in 2015 to Ange Postecoglou’s Australia in Sydney, after extra time), plus another four painful exits in semi-finals.
When appointing Klinsmann, the country’s most high-profile manager since Guus Hiddink led them to the World Cup semi-finals on home soil in 2002, hopes were high of an era of success, but his tenure began with five winless friendly matches which included defeat to Peru and a draw with El Salvador.
Klinsmann still lives in the USA, spending the odd week here and there in South Korea (his recent predecessors all moved to the country when taking the job), and has his assistants attend domestic matches. This is not something that has gone down well with the football-mad Korean public.
The perception is that he is phoning it in. Victories over Tunisia and Saudi Arabia last autumn improved the mood, but Klinsmann has not convinced in the slightest.
For a squad which boasts players from Tottenham Hotspur, Bayern Munich, PSG, Celtic, Wolves and Stuttgart, in what some consider to be a golden generation of talent, draws with Jordan and Malaysia will not do.
“It’s a big learning curve for me too but hopefully I’m a great learner,” Klinsmann said when appointed.
He is still learning – but time may be running out.
(Top photo: Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images)
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