Russia vs. South Korea: 6 Things We Learned
Lee Keun-ho and Alexandr Kerzhakov were the goalscorers as Russia and South Korea drew 1-1 in Cuiaba on Tuesday, with Russia goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev taking the headlines with a potentially fatal gaffe.
Belgium had beaten Algeria 2-1 in the other World Cup Group H fixture, with both sides showing glimpses of their ability, but neither Russia nor South Korea managed to produce performances that will have inspired or scared their next opponents.
Akinfeev's howler gave the Koreans the lead from a speculative long shot, though Fabio Capello had Kerzhakov to thank for a point, as the Zenit St. Petersburg striker became Russia's joint-record goal-scorer with 26.
Here are six things we learned from the Group H showdown in Cuiaba.
A Fair Point Apiece
In the end, it was a fair result for both sides, who by and large labored through the tough playing conditions with lethargic displays.
Only after Lee had scored for South Korea did the Russians truly awake from their slumber, eventually ending the match on a high note with both teams trying to score a winner, making the game much more open-ended.
But the fact that Koo Ja-cheol's 50th-minute shot was Korea's first on target of the match, and that centre-back Sergei Ignashevich's 35-yard free-kick was Russia's only attempt on target in the first half, said it all about an even and uninspiring matchup.
We'll wait to see if it was just the lack of overall quality on display on Tuesday, or whether Cuiaba's weather really drains the energy out of players.
Substitutes Steal the Show
Credit to both managers on Tuesday; it was their substitutes that changed the game for the better.
Hong Myung-bo's decision to send Lee Keun-ho on for Park Chu-young proved to be an inspired one, as Lee sent the telling long-range shot Akinfeev's way to notch South Korea's opener.
Yet Fabio Capello's two substitutions also impacted Russia's overall play: Alan Dzagoev came on before the hour mark to inject some life and pace into his side, while Kerzhakov was just three minutes into his cameo when he scored the equalizer.
The performances off the bench will have given their coaches some food for thought ahead of their next games, if only because of the lethargic display from the starting XI's.
No Goalkeeping Exhibitions in Cuiaba
Earlier on Tuesday, we saw a scintillating performance from Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa, who denied Brazil a second win in Group A with a goalkeeping masterclass.
Those who looked forward to more from the remaining fixtures on Tuesday certainly had their hopes dashed in the last fixture of round one.
Prior to Akinfeev's royal howler, he had already been going through a rough match, with spilled shots and unconvincing parries a feature of his erstwhile reliable game, which had seen him linked with top clubs all over Europe a few years back.
But Akinfeev's blunder shouldn't ease any pressure on South Korea's Jung Sung-ryong, who wasn't entirely an assured presence in his own box either: It was his weak parry that led to Kerzhakov's equalizer.
Not exactly a good day for goalkeepers in Cuiaba, but let's face it: Iker Casillas' disastrous display against the Netherlands sent much bigger shockwaves.
Russia Lacking Spark from the Start
Fabio Capello surprised a few by leaving Russia's golden boy Alan Dzagoev from the bench and opted for a front three of Aleksandr Kokorin, Aleksandr Samedov and Yuri Zhirkov.
On paper, it could've been an interesting and potent combination, with Samedov and Zhirkov bombing down the flanks and Kokorin an accomplished finisher in the middle.
Yet it wasn't until Dzagoev and Kerzhakov came off the bench in the second half that sparked Russia into life, which will have been clear to Capello on the sidelines.
That South Korea generally held a deeper defensive line on Tuesday than they did in their pre-tournament friendlies didn't help Russia's attacking approach, but for a team with their firepower, they could've and should've done a lot more than just settle for conservative possession play.
South Korea Undone by Striking Weaknesses
We previously discussed South Korea's lack of a great goalscorer up front after their final pre-World Cup friendly against Ghana, and Tuesday's performance showed little to allay those fears.
Park Chu-young again looked toothless in attack and was deservedly taken off for Lee Keun-ho early in the second half. That there is a glaring lack of good striking options off the bench should be alarming to coach Hong, during and after this World Cup.
Yet finishing is a problem across this whole squad: Son Heung-min's excellent run cutting in from the left was an example of the dynamic and quick wing play that can become a South Korean hallmark, yet his atrocious finish underlined just how much there is still to do.
There is a decent spine to the side, not least in the form of Ki Sung-yueng, who impressed with a tidy showing of composure and unerring passing, but he needs someone to finish off the chances he helps his compatriots create.
A Tough Group-Stage Campaign Ahead for Both Sides
The earlier Group H fixture showed plenty of promise for both Belgium and Algeria, even though it ended in three points to the much-discussed Belgian dark horses.
Belgium have far and away the most accomplished squad on paper in the group and will give any team in the World Cup a run for its money, and on current evidence they have already navigated their toughest challenge in Algeria.
Algeria, cast aside as one of the weakest teams in Brazil this summer, showed pace and attacking threat against Belgium, with Sofiane Feghouli their key dangerman.
As we stand, both Russia and South Korea don't have the defence to hold off their Group H opponents, or the attack to beat them.
It'll be a tough two matches ahead for both.
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