Another favored team has failed to impress in the early stages of the World Cup. This time it was South Korea holding South American power Uruguay to a 0-0 draw on Thursday, a result that probably favors the Asian team.
The draw at Education City Stadium was yet another early World Cup match with a surprising result. Argentina and Germany both lost their opening games in major upsets. This one hinted at being another.
Uruguay coach Diego Alonso said he was satisfied, and so did South Korea counterpart Paulo Bento. Alonso sounded less convincing.
“I’m more than happy with the result,” Alonso said.
“I’m sure that this group stage will be determined by the last match. We all know the second game is key, and so is the third one. But this will not affect whether we qualify of not.”
Uruguay will next face Portugal in Group H while South Korea plays Ghana, with both games on Monday. The top two teams in the group will advance to the round of 16.
South Korea, with forward Son Heung-min wearing a mask to protect a broken left eye socket, always looked the more likely to score against the more experienced Uruguayans. The South Koreans were quicker, pressing from the opening whistle.
Many South Korean fans wore Batman-like masks in solidarity with Son, who was injured on Nov. 2 in a Champions League match playing for English club Tottenham. He had a few early chances but seemed to tire in the second half.
“He (Son) had a serious injury,” Bento said.
“He was inactive for a considerable amount of time. He could only get back with the team in the recent days. And of course it’s natural after an injury that it will take time some time to adapt. But I think overall we had a good performance.”
In a match with few clear scoring chances and South Korea often in control, Uruguay had the best opportunities to score: Diego Godin hit the post with a header in the 43rd minute and Federico Valverde hit it in the 89th.
Alonso started an attacking lineup with Luis Suarez, Darwin Nunez and Facundo Pellistri up front, and with Valverde and Matias Vecino in midfield. But they seldom had the ball at the start.
South Korea pressed forward early and Son excited the crowd every time he touched the ball, but he managed only one threatening attack in the first half. South Korea always looked quicker than Uruguay, but not necessarily the more dangerous. The team’s best chance came in the 34th minute when Hwang Ui-jo sailed a close-range attempt over the crossbar.
As the second half wore on, Uruguay began to take more possession but always seemed cautious, taking less initiative despite having the more experienced players.
Son went down in a heap early in the second half with Martin Caceres getting the first yellow card of the match.
Alonso sent in Edinson Cavani for Suarez in 64th minute as the pace of the match slowed until Valverde hit the post in the final minutes.
“In the first 20 minutes, we struggled against Korea,” Alonso said. “We couldn’t take the ball from them. We couldn’t get any pressure and lost precision.
“Obviously, the second half we dominated much more. We were better than them, I think, but we lacked a bit of attacking. I mean attacking more. We tried to be more competitive, too.”
Preview: Uruguay vs. South Korea – prediction, team news, lineups
The sacking of Tabarez as Uruguay boss following 15 years in the job has thrown their preparation into disarray, despite the positive results they are getting on the pitch.
Alonso has come in and completely transformed a side which was on the floor following some woeful results in South American qualifying, but he still does not know his best starting XI or best system.
Tabarez was dismissed as manager with qualification in serious doubt after four successive defeats, including a humiliating 4-1 loss in Brazil and a 3-0 defeat away in the notoriously difficult altitude of Bolivia.
However, with four qualifiers left after the New Year, Alonso came in and won all four, with impressive away wins to Chile and Paraguay being the highlights, and Luis Suarez still at the centre of everything good in the national side.
He is still undecided on which formation best suits his side though, as 4-4-2 and a 4-3-2-1 have both been used often, but are ultimately untested against strong opposition.
The finer details will not matter as long as they keep up this level of performance in attack and defence though, as they have conceded just twice in his nine games in charge.
Getting the best out of their wide array of attacking options will be important, and Suarez, Darwin Nunez, Edinson Cavani and Maxi Gomez have all been among the goals this year, with Uruguay averaging two goals per game.
Alonso has repeatedly stated pre-tournament that they are aiming to be world champions, and on current form they cannot be discounted.
South Korea, meanwhile, come into the tournament with an under-fire manager and a squad which has underwhelmed in the build up to Qatar.
In addition to this, the worst possible turn of events struck the side on the eve of the tournament, with Son Heung-min going off injured in the Champions League, requiring surgery on a fractured eye socket.
He has stated he will do whatever it takes to play, because without him, it will affect South Korea both mentally and ability-wise on the pitch.
If manager Paulo Bento opts to risk him from the start, there is also the chance he will not be 100% having had such a disruptive preparation to the tournament.
With their attacking star a doubt, that will put more pressure on their solid defence, but after conceding just three goals in their 10 AFC final stage qualifiers, they have proved they can be relied upon.
Despite their famous win over Germany in Russia, they were left massively disappointed following losses to Mexico and Sweden which saw them eliminated at the group stage.
They find themselves in a very competitive group once again in which they will need to cause at least one upset if they are to progress.
Ronald Araujo may not be risked in this group opener for Uruguay as the Barcelona defender has been fast-tracked back into training following a thigh operation, so Diego Godin may come in to deputise alongside his old partner Jose Maria Gimenez.
Manager Alonso has a decision to make in goal, as Fernando Muslera, who has been a regular for over 13 years, has been ousted recently by Sergio Rochet, who has played in many of the internationals under the new manager.
The formation he chooses to go with will have a huge bearing on the squad selection too, as Nunez will only get a start out wide given the undroppable stature of Suarez up front.
However, Facundo Pellistri and Giorgian de Arrascaeta are more in favour with the manager to start in attack alongside Suarez, meaning Cavani is expected to be a substitute too.
Son has said he will happily “take a risk” in order to play whenever he is needed at this World Cup, and he is desperately needed in this South Korea side, but there remains doubts about his level of fitness and preparation.
Kim Min-jae played every qualifier, being instrumental behind their excellent defensive record while impressing for Fenerbahce, and he is now doing the same at the top level with a Napoli side dominating in Serie A and the Champions League.
Bento continues to be criticised for his style of play though, as Korea are often not adventurous enough, and that is blamed on the manager opting not to pick many creative players in his side.
Lee Kang-in is one of those players who has proved his creative capabilities in La Liga with Real Mallorca this season, but he is underused by Bento to the frustration of the fans.
Uruguay possible starting lineup:
Rochet; Varela, Godin, Gimenez, Olivera; Bentancur, Vecino, Valverde; De Arrascaeta, L Suarez, Nunez
South Korea possible starting lineup:
Kim Seung-gyu; Kim Moon-hwan, Kim Young-gwon, Kim Min-jae, Kim Jin-su; Jung Woo-Young, Hwang In-beom, Lee Jae-sung; Hwang Hee-chan, Son Heung-min, Hwang Ui-jo