Son’s start unable to inspire comeback win for South Koreans
BANDUNG, Indonesia (AP) — In his last start a week ago Son Heung-min helped Tottenham to a win in the Premier League. In his last start in a South Korea jersey Son scored late in a World Cup upset group stage win over 2014 champion Germany in late June.
He was a long way from there on Friday, when his belated start to the Asian Games ended in a 2-1 loss to Malaysia that left him feeling ashamed in front of 4,125 fans on the outskirts of Bandung, the capital of Indonesia's West Java province.
After getting permission from Tottenham to pursue a gold medal that would earn him an exemption from national military service, Son finally got on the field in the 57th minute of South Korea's second group game.
By then, the defending champions were down 2-0 after a pair of first-half goals from Safawi Rasid and all the warnings Son had given his young teammates about the potential threats of every opponent appeared to have gone unheeded.
"I feel ashamed about this shocking loss," Son said in Korean. "The players sort of took it easy. After the Malaysians scored two goals, the players were perplexed."
He was unable to spark a comeback win at SI Jalak Harupat Stadium, the art deco-inspired 27,000-seat stadium that is set amid volcanic hills and tea plantations about a four-hour drive southeast of Jakarta.
Son had some good touches but, after Hwang Ui-jo scored for South Korea in the 87th, he pushed a long-range free kick wide in the last minute.
South Korea had more than two-thirds of the possession and took 14 shots to Malaysia's five but lacked finish in the front third and were exposed early in defense.
Defense is the key for this South Korean team.
A gold medal will exempt them from 21 months of military service, an obligation Son is otherwise expected to start within the next two years. That's the kind of commitment that could hurt his playing career.
He's at the Asian Games in Indonesia as one of the three wildcard — or overage players — in the under-23 South Korean squad. And he's one of four members of South Korea's World Cup squad selected for the roster, along with Hwang Hee-chan, Lee Seung-woo and goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo.
Only one of them — Hwang — started against Malaysia.
South Korea coach Kim Hak-bum admitted he made a tactical blunder by rotating his players too early in the tournament.
"That was my mistake ... I regret that," Kim said through a translator. "Because of today's result we've got a difficult pathway to the finals. First place and second place in this group is quite different in the round of 16 ... but we'll get through."
Kim responded to question about Son's limited playing time by saying the star player had only been with the squad a couple of days and his fitness and condition had to be properly managed.
The 25-team tournament is not officially recognized by FIFA, but Tottenham allowed the 26-year-old Son to leave England after the 2-1 win at Newcastle.
Son missed South Korea's run to the Asian Games title in 2014 because he was not released by former club Bayer Leverkusen, adding to the pressure on him to win gold this time.
"I should have controlled the game better and helped the (young) players in their mind controls — I feel a big responsibility for that," Son said. "I and our coach told players that we could face a big trouble if we lowered our guard. Of course, this thing should not happen, but I feel very relieved that this happened during the group preliminaries. I hope our players have learned that."
South Korea will round out the group stage against Kyrgyzstan on Monday and will need a big win to restore confidence ahead of the knockout stage.
Malaysia leads Group E with two wins and is three points clear of South Korea, which had opened its campaign by thrashing Bahrain 6-0 on Wednesday. Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan had a 2-2 draw Friday to pick up their first points of the tournament and remain in contention.
The top two teams from each group and four best-performing third-placed teams advance to the round of 16.