(Asian Cup) Much-maligned striker, backup goalkeeper come to S. Korea’s rescue vs. Saudi Arabia

SEOUL, In edging out Saudi Arabia 4-2 in the penalty shootout to reach the final eight at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in Qatar on Tuesday, South Korea received critical contributions from unexpected sources. Forward Cho Gue-sung headed home the last-gasp equalizer to pull South Korea level at 1-1 and send the match into extra time. Then goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo made a key stop late in the extra session before turning aside two kicks during the nailbiting shootout at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan, west of Doha. Thanks to their heroics, South Korea's quest to end a 64-year title drought at the top AFC tournament is still alive. Education City Stadium once again proved to be the promised land for Cho, who rose to international stardom when he scored two header goals against Ghana at the same stadium during the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Up until his equalizer, though, the Asian Cup hadn't been as kind to Cho as the World Cup. He started all three group stage matches bu t misfired on a series of chances up close. Suddenly, tens of thousands of adoring fans who'd jumped on the Cho bandwagon in Qatar about a year ago turned their backs on him. Cho's social media page was inundated with some spiteful and vitriolic comments. Cho was held out of the starting lineup against Saudi Arabia. He came on in the 64th minute, with South Korea down 1-0. And it was after Cho entered the match that South Korea started making more concerted efforts for an equalizer. Midfielder Lee Kang-in and Cho, who connected for both of Cho's goals against Ghana, nearly had another memorable moment together early in stoppage time. But Cho's header off a Lee cross struck the crossbar. Cho capitalized on his second opportunity, however, as he headed home a pass from Seol Young-woo into the gaping net to knot the score at 1-1 nine minutes into the added time. Cho said his mindset as a sub on Tuesday was the same as the one he usually takes as a starter. "I wanted to do whatever it took to score and tie t he match," he said. "I missed on some early opportunities, but then Young-woo set me up with a perfect pass. It was all him." Cho claimed he hadn't been stressing over his lack of production. "Sometimes, the ball goes into the net. Other times, it doesn't go into the net," Cho said with a shrug. "I just felt I would have my share of chances to score. And having some kind of nervous anxiety is part of being a striker." He admitted he was a bit frustrated when his earlier header struck the crossbar, and he was only happy to have a wide open look for his goal. "When Young-woo sent me the pass, there was no one in front of me," Cho recalled with a smile. "If I can't score on a chance like that, then I shouldn't even be here." Cho converted his chance as the third South Korean kicker in the shootout, but he ceded the spotlight to Jo. Jo began this tournament as a backup to Kim Seung-gyu, who had been Jurgen Klinsmann's first-choice custodian since the German boss took over in February. Kim had started nine o f Klinsmann's first 11 matches, including the first group match in Qatar against Bahrain. But then Kim suffered a torn ligament in his right knee while training for the second match against Jordan, and Jo was thrust into the leading role. Jo is not short on pedigrees. He was South Korea's No. 1 goalkeeper at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and famously backstopped South Korea to a 2-0 win over the defending champions Germany in their final group match. Jo had gradually lost his playing time to Kim over the ensuing years, with Kim displaying superior buildup skills with his passing and kicking abilities. Much like Cho, Jo had some shaky moments in the group stage, none more so than during the disappointing, 3-3 draw against the lowly Malaysia. That result set up the round of 16 match against Saudi Arabia, and Jo, after allowing the first goal, slammed the door shut on Saudi Arabia. "It was a really grueling match but the guys in front of me played really well," Jo said. "As soon as we got the 1-1 goal, I was determined to keep the match tied. I had faith in my teammates that they would eventually score as long as I kept making saves." After the victory, Klinsmann said his team had trained hard for penalties and his kickers were mentally prepared for the nailbiting finish. And it applied to Jo as well. "We had done so much work on penalties that I actually felt pretty comfortable with the shootout," Jo said. "In my head, I kept drawing the image of us winning this early." Jo made both of his saves -- first on Sami Al-Najei and then on Abdulrahman Ghareeb -- diving to his right. And it was because Jo did something that all husbands should do -- listening to his wife. "Before the match today, my wife told me to jump to my right (if the match went to the penalties)," Jo said with a smile. "I want to thank her for that piece of advice." Source: Yonhap News Agency