Statistics are often as misleading as they are informative. On one hand this game is between the 2004 European Championship winners and the 2002 World Cup Semi-Finalists. Another way of describing the game is between a side whose World Cup finals record outside their own country is just one win in seventeen games (and that over African minnows Togo) and the only European nation ever to play at a World Cup without scoring. At the outset, that may be harsh, as the South Koreans are showing that the co-hosting of the Cup in 2002 has been beneficial in the long-term as the 1994 World Cup was for the United States. They were unfortunate not to beat eventual runners-up France at the last World Cup, and their semi-final run at home helped gain a number of players moves abroad, allowing them to build on their coaching at home, improving the national team as a result. Greece on the other hand have always saved their best qualifying runs for the European Championships. Their win in 2004 was a victory for coaching and organisation, but their performances in 2008 suggested a team in decline, and qualifying owed more to being seeded and a weak draw, than anything else.
Unlike the opening game, everything is ready to start early, and TV have to wait for kickoff. This is a technical issue that’s to do with the fourth official, and its irritating referee Michael Hester, according to ITV commentator Jon Champion. Somewhere I expect Alan Green is blaming television or Sepp Blatter. The reality is that it’s so any spectators arriving (or switching their TVs on) on time, don’t miss kick off.
The early exchanges are a tale of two set pieces. An early ball in from Giorgios Samaras on the left wing causes Cho Yong-Hyung enough trouble for him to give away a corner. Vasilis Torisidis has an excellent chance to give the Greeks a second minute lead, but puts his shot wide. He’s unmarked, and almost taken but surprise that he’s got a chance, but Greece should have taken the lead. Five minutes later, Torisidis regrets his miss even further. A Ki Sung-Yong free-kick near the corner flag, is flicked on by Kostas Katsouranis, only to sail over Angelos Charitseas and onto the head of Lee Jung-Soo. 1-0.
On fifteen minutes, is the best shout for a penalty so far in the tournament. Torosidis runs into Lee Chul-Yong and appears to take him down. The replays are inconclusive but suggest contact is made. Referee Hester waves it away, and the lack of protest is surprising. We then have a great example of how this Greek side like to retain possession, unfortunately it was during their best attack since the goal. A long cross-field ball arrives at the feet of Theofanis Gekas, and rather than shoot from a slightly acute angle, he cut the ball back to Samaras, who runs away from goal, allowing the attack to peter out into nothing.
On 20 minutes comes the best move of the first half. Greece win a needless corner courtesy of Lee Jung-Soo. It’s cleared, and Kim Jun-Woo breaks into the Greek half, playing a clumsy one-two with Park Chu-Young, before supplying Park Chu-Young with a great opportunity that he mis-kicked wide. South Korea are in control, and create opening after opening. Park Ji-Sung beats Loukas Vyntra with a nice bit of skill, only for referee Hester to inexplicably pull it back with Park Ji-Sung free in the penalty area. Park Chu-Young then beats the offside trap from a great through ball, Avraam Papadopoulos tries to keep pace, but can only watch as keeper Alexandros Tzorvas comes out and deflects the ball over the bar. The rest of the half peters out. This Greek side are abysmal – even worse that the side that they sent in 1994 – and the South Koreans should have been three up.
The second half begins with Greek coach Otto Rehhagel sacrificing captain Giorgios Karagounis, and replacing him with Christos Patsatzoglou. And that is more interesting than anything that happens in the next five minutes. However, a loss of concentration results in Vyntra wasting possession, gifting the ball to Park Ji-Sung about twenty yards out, Park Ji-Sung leaves Vyntra in his wake, skips past the challenge of Papadopoulos and delicately chips the ball over Tzorvas. 2-0.
Torosidis is the first name into the book for a needless foul on Lee Young-Pyo, and the Greeks are starting to get unsettled – only Setiaridis seemed to be playing anything approaching his normal game, and his run down the wing and subsequent cross was for nothing, as no-one made the right run for the ball. Rehhagel sends on Salpigidis for Samaras, and Panetlis for Charitseas, although at this point, he could have chosen one of nine outfielders to replace. After an hour, South Korea start treating the game like a warm up, and with the onus on the Greeks, the second half is a lot less entertaining that the first. South Korea play the Greeks at their own game, by retaining possession, only creating the occasional chance when space presented itself – a sublime cross from Cha Du-Ri is headed over by Park Chu-Young.
Finally, after 70 minutes, Greece have a short spell where they are on top and test the South Korean defence. However most importantly, Greece fail to test the South Korean keeper – as least not for the first 80 minutes. Vyntra’s backpass tests Tzorvas more than Gekas’ overhead kick, Salpigidis weak header and Kapetanos high and wide shot tests Jung Sung-Ryong put together. Gekas’s volley does force a block by the hands of a South Korean defender, but he is one of three offside attackers. When Jung is finally tested, it’s a fairly routine save that he makes look better for the cameras. An inswinging cross is deflected by Cho Yong-Hyung, straight to the feet of Gekas, who turns a defender and fires a shot in that Jung palms over the bar. The shot only served to wake the South Koreans up, and they increased the pressure. The peak of which was a shot by Lee Chul-Yong, which Tzorvas turns round the post. From there, it becomes a match of possession, with both teams seemingly aware that the result isn’t changing.
Back to those statistics. The 2004 European Championship winners still haven’t scored at a World Cup – and apart from that run in 2004 are still to win at a major championship, their draw against West Germany remains their best result. Greece only started looking remotely like a threat after the three substitutions, with Rehhagel taking off his three “big name” players, and going back to being a team again.
South Korea were assured. Confident in defence, creative in midfield and threatening up front. South Korea have now won two games in World Cups outside their country. Or, considering how assured they were today, maybe we should rephrase it, a little more positively – South Korea have only lost one of their last five World Cup matches outside their country.