(Asian Cup) Inefficient S. Korea keep grinding out wins in quest for long-awaited title

SEOUL, As they chase their first title in the top Asian men's football tournament in over six decades, the South Koreans are doing it the hard way. Behind a stoppage-time equalizer and an extra-time winner, South Korea defeated Australia 2-1 on Friday to reach the semifinals at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar. Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton Wanderers converted a penalty six minutes into added time at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, south of Doha, before Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur finished off the Socceroos with a free kick goal during extra time. In five matches of the tournament so far, South Korea have scored three goals during second-half stoppage time that either gave them a lead or tied the score. South Korea also had an own goal by Jordan during added time in their Group E showdown on Jan. 20 and walked away with a 2-2 draw. The two countries will meet for the second time in Qatar in Tuesday's semifinals, with South Korea head coach Jurgen Klinsmann predicting another "nailbiter." South Korea are now two wins away from claiming their first Asian Cup title since 1960, and it has been anything but smooth sailing so far. Against Australia, South Korea experienced much the same problems that held them back in earlier contests. Hwang shook off his left hip injury to make his first start of the tournament, joining fellow Premier Leaguer Son and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Lee Kang-in. Son and Hwang have combined for 22 goals in the top English league so far this season, while Lee has been among the best playmakers of this tournament, based on several passing metrics. A team with such a trio lining up behind striker Cho Gue-sung should have had a much easier time scoring Friday. Instead, South Korea didn't even register a shot on target in the first half, despite holding a near 70-30 edge in possession. Hwang did put one into the net but had the goal get wiped out on an offside decision. South Korea spent the vast majority of the final half hour of the match in the attacking zone. Against tall and physical Australian defenders, South Korea kept knocking on the door with passes and crosses from left and right. And it took some great individual effort by Son to kick that door down. Son's penetration into the box drew a foul, and Hwang converted the spot kick to tie the score. Then in extra time, it was Hwang's foray into the box that led to a free kick just outside the area. Son took the kick this time and scored a cracking curler to put South Korea up for good. Leaning on stars to get the job done had been the running theme for South Korea before Friday and the trend merely continued. An even more concerning trend that continued Friday was South Korea's shaky defense. They have now conceded at least a goal in every one of their five matches so far. They came into the tournament not having allowed a goal in each of their past seven matches, but have now served up eight in five contests in Qatar. The lone Australian goal was the direct result of a South Korean turnover near their own box. When midfielder Hwang In-beom failed to connect with a defender, Craig Goodwin pounced on the errant pass. The ball swung around to the right side and found Nathaniel Atkinson, all the while defenders were struggling to establish their presence. Atkinson floated the ball back toward left, where unmarked Goodwin had his left leg all locked and loaded for a volley. In addition to giving up a goal in every match, South Korea also allowed the first goal in each of their first two knockout matches. Playing from behind in win-or-go-home matches will catch up to them at some point. Against Jordan, South Korea will be without their top center back Kim Min-jae. The Bayern Munich defender was cautioned for the second time this tournament against Australia and is thus automatically suspended for the next one. With Kim in the lineup in the group stage, South Korea still struggled against Jordan's physical and speedy attackers. The Taegeuk Warriors have now played 240 minutes worth of football, plus a penalty shootout, in their two knockout matches over a four-day span. On top of Kim's absence, South Korea will also have to overcome fatigue against a better-rested opponent. They only have themselves to blame for not getting the job done in regulation.

"I don't want to leave it so late all the time, believe me," Klinsmann said. "I would be happy to get it done earlier, but it is maybe our story in this tournament to leave it late."

Source: Yonhap News Agency