An effervescent Son Heung-min inspired title-chasing South Korea to a comfortable 2-0 victory over China on Wednesday to finish top of their Asian Cup group.
Hwang Ui-jo and Kim Min-jae were on target as the Koreans, boosted by the arrival of their talisman, ran China ragged in Abu Dhabi.
Son won the penalty converted by Hwang and fizzed in the assist for Kim to help South Korea finish top of Group C with a perfect nine points as they look to end 59 years of Asian Cup hurt.
“Of course I’m a bit tired – I didn’t expect to play for so long,” Korean captain Son said after completing 87 minutes despite a punishing run of 13 games for Tottenham since the start of December.
“But it’s an honour to wear this red shirt and play for the national team. My first game of the tournament, clean sheet, 2-0 – it’s a happy afternoon!”
Marcello Lippi’s China finished as group runners-up having likewise already sealed their place in the last 16 by winning their first two matches. Spurs forward Son, who played in the London club’s 1-0 defeat by Manchester United three days ago, showed quick feet to tempt China defender Shi Ke into a rash challenge 12 minutes.
Hwang calmly tucked away the spot-kick to send thousands of Korean ‘Red Devils’ fans wild at the compact Al Nahyan Stadium. South Korea, who beat Asian Cup first-timers Philippines and Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in their opening two games, went for the jugular.
A Hwang Hee-chan rocket forced China goalkeeper Yan Junling into a fingertip save before Hwang Ui-jo curled an effort against the post. The Koreans, joint title favourites with Iran, doubled their lead six minutes after the break when Son’s corner was met by Kim’s thumping header.
South Korea, who famously reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, have failed to win Asian football’s most coveted prize since winning back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1960. They have been finalists on four subsequent occasions, including in 2015 when they were beaten in extra time by hosts Australia.
But the addition of the mercurial Son has clearly energised the Taeguk Warriors, who suddenly look a very different proposition. “We are very satisfied with the effort that Son made,” said South Korea coach Paulo Bento, who is yet to learn the identity of his team’s last-16 opponents.
“What’s important in this moment for Son and the rest of the team is to enjoy this result and then go again.”
China, Asian Cup runners-up in 1984 and 2004, began the competition by edging Kyrgyzstan 2-1 and overpowering the Philippines 3-0. But they were no match for South Korea and were lucky not to concede further goals in a lop-sided game.
“Let’s be honest, the Korean team is much stronger than us – they’re faster, technically superior and play with greater intensity,” shrugged Lippi, whose side face Thailand in the last 16.
“They are one of the favourites to win the tournament – we have to accept that and focus on our next challenge.”
Elsewhere in Group C, a Vitalij Lux hat-trick sent Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Philippines crashing out and gave Kyrgyzstan hope of progressing as one of the best third-placed teams in a 3-1 victory.
German-based Lux struck once in the first half and twice in the second in Dubai before the Philippines grabbed a consolation goal through Stephan Schrock with 10 minutes to go.