Aleksandr Kerzhakov Rescues Point For Russia Against South Korea

Fabio Capello has some agent. For those who missed the start of the Italian’s second World Cup finals as manager here is a quick recap; England versus the USA in 2010. The parallels are unerring. We had a rigid performance lacking spark and imagination, even a goalkeeping howler reminiscent of the Robert Green fumble that allowed Clint Dempsey to level in South Africa. Once again it went against Capello but he emerged with another 1-1 draw as South Korea were made to lament their one defensive lapse of the night.

Igor Akinfeev dropped a routine shot from Lee Keun-ho over his line to give South Korea a deserved lead in Cuiabá but his blushes, Russia’s and those of the man paid £6.7m a year to bring mere functionality to the World Cup stage were spared as the substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov grabbed a swift equaliser.

There was little love for Russia inside the Arena Pantanal. South Korea emerged to a rapturous reception from the mostly Brazilian crowd and had their every touch celebrated while jeers rang out whenever Russia had the ball. Must be something they have done recently. Not that Russia’s seasoned coach and vastly experienced squad – one that undermines any suggestion Capello is using this competition as preparation for 2018 – could have cared less. T hey faced a bigger problem combating the sharp, incisive start South Korea made to the contest.

It was an opening that suggested their troubled preparations for the World Cup were part of an elaborate ploy. Jung Sung-ryong retained his place in goal despite some erratic form coming into the tournament and calls for the younger Kim Seung-gyu to replace him. South Korea’s build-up had been unconvincing to put it mildly, with a 1-0 defeat by Tunisia followed by a 4-0 lesson from Ghana in their final warm-up game. They were also beaten 2-1 by Russia in Dubai last November, a friendly that Capello had claimed provided valuable insight into his opening World Cup opponents.

Korean confidence stemmed from their faith in the manager Hong Myung-bo, the country’s most capped and popular player, the captain of the team that reached the 2002 semi-finals, and the promising start to his managerial career. Hong led the Under-20s to the quarter-finals of the 2009 World Cup, the Under-23s to an Olympic bronze in London two years ago and, now that it really mattered, had clearly worked on the senior side’s reputation for poor defending and a sometimes limited attack. Russia, by contrast, were rigid and pedestrian save for a spell midway through the first half when they prospered down the flanks. It would be easy to say this was similar to watching Capello’s England at the 2010 World Cup – easy because it was true.

Hong started with midfielder Koo Ja-cheol in an advanced striking role and the country’s main attacking hope, Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-min, out of the left and both tactical switches caused trouble for the Russia defence early on.

Bolton’s Lee Chung-yong almost threaded Park Chu-young through in South Korea’s first attack, only for the Arsenal player to fail narrowly to connect, then Son Heung-min latched on to a fine flick from Koo and rounded the Russia rearguard only to slice wide. Finding the target proved beyond the Leverkusen striker throughout the first half and he wasted several opportunities to end the stalemate.

Capello’s team rarely forced the issue, their defenders never ventured into opposition territory and they seemed content to rely on their threat from set pieces throughout the opening 45 minutes. The central defender Sergei Ignashevich forced Jung into his first save of note with a venomous free-kick from 35 yards and the former Chelsea midfielder Yuri Zhirkov shot well wide when released down the left by Aleksandr Kokorin. But it was South Korea who finished the half stronger and, after Koo’s shot deflected just wide off Ignashevich, Son should have at least troubled Akinfeev. Collecting another intelligent header from the left, this time from Park Chu-young, Son cut inside Russia’s captain, Vasili Berezutski, but skied horribly wide from the edge of the area.

Russia at least showed some positive intent after the restart and Viktor Fayzulin had Jung back-pedalling to parry his dipping shot almost from the kick-off. Berezutski met the resulting corner with a towering header at the near post but found the side-netting rather than the answer to Capello’s prayers.

Yet still South Korea controlled midfield and were the only side to offer any imagination. They were also greatly encouraged by Akinfeev’s aversion to holding on to a shot in the Russian goal long before the inevitable happened. The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper pushed a tame effort away from his top corner at the start of the second half. He then spilled two speculative efforts from distance, from Ki Sung-yeung and Kim Young-gwon, gathering the rebounds at the foot of an opponent only at the last second, before the moment that will haunt him forever.

Lee Keun-ho, a substitute, took possession in the centre circle and, with Russia’s defenders backing off all the way, he was invited to chance his luck from 25 yards. With Akinfeev in goal, why not, he must have thought. The shot lacked power and sailed straight into the goalkeeper’s grasp. And then straight through it, dropping slowly over the line as Akinfeev grasped at thin air. He probably missed that too.

His embarrassment was lessened six minutes later, however, when Kerzhakov levelled for Russia after South Korea failed to clear a shot from Kokorin. Jung could only parry, Hwang Seok-ho’s clearance struck Andrei Eshchenko – possibly on the arm – and fell invitingly for the veteran striker to bury a simple finish.


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