Son Heung-min showed his enduring class as he steered South Korea to victory over China barely 48 hours after stepping off the plane in the UAE.
The 26-year-old skipper surprisingly started the game, but there was no surprise that he was the catalyst to this Asian Cup victory – winning the penalty which Hwang Ui-jo fired home early on to reward Korea’s dominance.
He then swung in the inviting corner that central defender Kim Min-jae gleefully headed home just after the restart to give his side a 2-0 lead.
Here we take a closer look at his game.
Shorn of their star for the opening two games, the Taegeuk Warriors had looked like an army devoid of its general during two unconvincing victories earned against Group C featherweights Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines.
But entering the arena for the final group game, Korea’s prize fighter delivered two knockout blows to help lead his troops into the knockout stages top of the group, and to victory in far more convincing fashion than they had previously done so.
His trickery was just too much for the Chinese defence as they conceded a penalty for the opener, before his pin-point corner was finished emphatically by Kim.
Influence – Cometh the hour, cometh the man. After jetting to the Emirates following Spurs’ defeat to Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday, you may not have expected to see Son quite so soon, especially after just one training session.
Named in the starting XI, we wondered how long it might take for him to find his feet. No time at all as it turned out, with the schemer at the heart of his side’s rapid start. His 90.5 pass accuracy was near flawless, which included seven key passes, while he was key to both goals.
Carelessness – Not in the sense he was wasteful with the ball, his 90.5 pass accuracy will attest to that, but Son rarely seems to have much regard for himself.
He stayed on the field longer than was necessary after victory had been secured – though the fact he played 89 minutes is more the fault of coach Paulo Bento than his – and it opened him up to being a target for cheap shots from Chinese opponents.
He was fouled on four occasions, with Korea and Tottenham fans likely wincing every time he hit the deck. Bravery and a willingness to play are never bad attributes to have if you’re a professional footballer, but with the amount of travelling he has to do being Korean, you wonder if Son might be better served being more selfish.
The totemic Tottenham forward was a surprise starter in Abu Dhabi, but when you have a player of such breathtaking talent in your side, giving him a runout to find his tournament feet is the perfect way to integrate him.
Hwang was the star of the show as Asian Games gold was secured last summer in Indonesia. But Son is undoubtedly the leader this Korean side look up to in the trenches. And with him leading the charge, you’d be a fool to believe more gold won’t follow at the beginning of February.
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