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(LEAD) Exhausted Son Heung-min finds new gear in World Cup qualifying win for S. Korea

23:18 October 07, 2021

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 7 (Yonhap) -- Son Heung-min did for South Korea on Thursday what the best athletes do for their teams time and time again.

He came through when his country needed him the most.

Son's 89th-minute winner helped South Korea squeeze past Syria 2-1 in their latest World Cup qualifying match Thursday at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, 40 kilometers south of Seoul.

Son Heung-min of South Korea celebrates his goal against Syria during the teams' Group A match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 7, 2021. (Yonhap)

It was South Korea's second straight victory, following a 1-0 win over Lebanon last month in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. South Korea, which opened the campaign with a scoreless draw versus Iraq, now sit atop Group A with seven points.

Son, the leading scorer for Tottenham Hotspur this season, came home in fine form, having been named to the most recent Team of the Week in the Premier League following his performance against Aston Villa. Son set up a goal and factored in Aston Villa's own goal, demonstrating his calf injury, sustained during his last international duty in September, was fully behind him.

Fans of Tottenham and the South Korean national team alike had been hoping against hope Son's workload would be managed somewhat against Syria, which sit 45 spots below South Korea in the FIFA rankings at 81st. In September, Son had played the full match against Iraq, only a couple of days after arriving back from London, and was sidelined for the Lebanon match because of the calf issue.

The setup was similar this time. Son reported to training camp Tuesday, one day after it opened, and he was once again asked to carry the team, jet lag or not.

Son Heung-min of South Korea (C) is helped up by teammates Jo Hyeon-woo (L) and Gu Sung-yun after the team's 2-1 victory over Syria in a Group A match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 7, 2021. (Yonhap)

With the more difficult match against the 22nd-ranked Iran coming up Tuesday in Tehran, perhaps South Korea head coach Paulo Bento could have rested Son -- if not for the entire match, then at least for a half Thursday -- and saved him for next week.

However, when asked about his usage plan for Son on Wednesday, Bento declared Son "will play from the beginning." And even as Son appeared gassed toward the end of the match, Bento kept his captain on the field.

Hwang In-beom gave South Korea a 1-0 lead three minutes into the second half, and the hosts almost made the advantage stand for the night. Instead, Syria tied the game in the 84th minute on Omar Kharbin's goal, as the dread of a disastrous draw descended on the pitch for South Korea.

Son, who by that point could barely run, found another gear in the dying moments. Defender Kim Min-jae positioned himself in the box and headed down a free kick taken by Hong Chul. The ball bounced perfectly into Son's wheelhouse, and the captain struck the one-timer home to restore the lead for South Korea.

In a concerning development, Son went down to the pitch and grabbed his right calf in pain near the end of the contest. His status for Tuesday wasn't immediately clear.

Son was not made available for a postmatch press conference, as he had to undergo a doping test. But in an on-field television interview immediately after the match, Son said he hadn't suffered any injury.

"It's not as bad as people may think. I feel fine overall," Son said. "No one is 100 percent healthy in these matches. And I love football so much. When you play for the country, you have to play through pain, even if it means you have to take medicine."

Son Heung-min of South Korea (L) scores against Syria during the teams' Group A match in the final Asian qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup at Ansan Wa Stadium in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province, on Oct. 7, 2021. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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