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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 2 (Yonhap) -- It was a draw that must have felt like a loss for South Korea but a win for Iraq.
The two countries played to a 0-0 draw to open the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday.
South Korea, ranked 36th, outshot the 70th-ranked Iraq 15-2, including a 5-0 edge in shots on target, at Seoul World Cup Stadium. The home side possessed the ball just over 68 percent of the time, and took 11 corners to Iraq's five.
None of these statistical advantages mattered in the end.
South Korea only had two opportunities that could be described as dangerous. First, in the 27th minute, midfielder Lee Jae-sung missed the wide-open net from point-blank range after a rebound from a Hwang Ui-jo header landed on his feet. Then some 50 minutes later in the second half, substitute Hwang Hee-chan headed down a cross by Hong Chul, only to see it land right at goalkeeper Fahad Talib.
South Korea's inability to finish chances around the net is hardly new, but in this match, Iraq's defense deserved as much credit as South Korean attackers warranted criticism.
After new head coach Dick Advocaat took the helm at the end of July, Iraq opened training camp on Aug. 9 in Spain. They later moved to Turkey to continue their preparation. In contrast, South Korea set up their camp on Monday this week but didn't have their first full squad practice until Wednesday, with four Europe-based players, including captain Son Heung-min, only arriving home Tuesday afternoon.
And Iraq did play like the better prepared team, at least on the defensive end. Advocaat also rolled the dice by inserting speedy forward Sherko Karim in the right full back position and having him shadow Son every step of the way.
Son, South Korea's most important offensive player, was rendered almost invisible. When he had the ball, he was often double-teamed and tripled-teamed. The few times when Son had some opening, he tried too hard to create a perfect scoring chance rather than take his shots -- as he often does for Tottenham Hotspur.
And that passing bug bit Son's teammates, too. Iraq, as strong as they were defensively, didn't just sit back and try to outnumber South Koreans. Thanks to some quick passing into tight space, South Koreans, on occasion, had some decent looks at the net. But each time, they passed up a good chance to create a better one that never materialized.
As the match progressed, Iraqi defenders started doing a better job getting in their opponents' passing lanes. South Koreans, rather stubbornly, kept knocking on the door that wouldn't open, instead of trying to create new routes.
And understandably so, Advocaat beamed after the match.
"Very happy with the result. We knew we would play against a very good team. We knew we had to work very hard. That's what the team did," the Dutchman said. "We only gave up two or three chances against a very good side. We're very happy with the performance. We know how strong Korea can be. Today, we eliminated most of their game."
South Korea coach Paulo Bento made second-half substitutions with offense on his mind. Attacking midfielder Nam Tae-hee replaced defensive midfielder Son Jun-ho. Hwang Hee-chan, known for an aggressive style of play, took over the right wing position from an ineffective Song Min-kyu.
None of the moves paid dividends, and South Korean players were left scratching their heads.
Bento conceded afterward that his players failed to execute their game plans.
"We got the draw because we didn't play as well as we should have played and we didn't do certain things that we'd planned before," he said. "We should have collected the ball faster than we did. We should have made more movements to space. We had a lack of mobility and also a lack of aggressiveness in our ball possession."