South Korea advanced to the Round of 16 with a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Portugal in their third and final Group H match at Education City Stadium in Al Rayyan on Friday, local time.
Hwang Hee-chan scored the winner in the second-half stoppage time, lifting the Asian side to its first knockout appearance in 12 years. The comeback started when defender Kim Young-gwon salvaged a 1-1 tie after Portugal took an early lead on a Ricardo Horta goal.
A draw with the ninth-ranked European powerhouse would be normally considered a good fight for Korea, but, with only a point on the board, the Taegeuk Warriors had to win the match to advance. In addition to a win, they also needed much help from their rivals in the other Group H match of the day to break through to the last 16.
At halftime, it appeared to go in that direction; in a match played simultaneously at Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah, Uruguay was leading Ghana 2-0 at the break with Giorgian de Arrascaeta scoring both goals. The South American side would go on to seal the victory by that margin, leaving it up to Korea to seal its own fate with a single-goal victory over the 2016 European champion.
Things did not go the Taegeuk Warriors' way all at once, with Korea’s offense failing to break through Portugal's defense in the second half, but the Wolverhampton Wanderers forward made that happen by converting a pinpoint pass from Son Heung-min after a spectacular long-distance dribble in the 91st minute.
Tottenham Hotspur forward Son, still recovering from facial injuries sustained at a UEFA Champions League match last month, started for Korea for the third game in a row, an effort now manifesting in a debut appearance in the knockout stage in his third – and possibly last – World Cup.
Lee Kang-in, a 21-year-old forward signed to Spanish club Mallorca, injected energy into Team Korea as he made his first World Cup start. Defender Kim Min-jae of SSC Napoli of Italy was on the bench due to a calf injury, with Kwon Kyung-won starting in his center-back place.
There was initially speculation that Cristiano Ronaldo would sit out the match to prepare for the knockout stage, but the 37-year-old star was among the starters for Portugal, indicating Portugal’s will to confirm its first-place finish and avoid a possible duel with Brazil in the first Round of 16 match.
With Portugal’s spot in the last 16 already secured with two victories, Korea needed Uruguay to beat Ghana but with as few goals as possible. South Korea entered the match in third place in the group on a single-goal edge over Uruguay and had to play for the biggest win possible, but a 2-1 victory proved to be enough.
A draw between Uruguay and Ghana could have still lifted Korea to the knockout round but required Korea to overturn a substantial goal difference with Ghana, who came into their final group match with a plus-three goal difference over Korea, but that proved to be irrelevant as Ghana fell 2-0 to Uruguay, whose best efforts still saw them head home early.
Team Korea coach Paulo Bento was absent from the touchline due to the red card received during its previous match against Ghana for protesting a call by referee Anthony Taylor, who denied Korea’s last chance at an equalizer by blowing the game-ending whistle as Korea set up for a corner kick.
It was only the second face-off between South Korea and Portugal in a World Cup, with the previous match coming in the group stage at the 2002 World Cup that ended in a 1-0 upset for South Korea on a Park Ji-sung goal that knocked out the Portuguese side featuring Bento in midfield.
The Portuguese national signed in 2018 to lead Team Korea through the 2022 World Cup and may now be asked to continue at the helm with his latest team’s victory over his home country.
Now as the Group H runner-up, Korea will face off with the Group G winner, which is very likely to be Brazil. The Group G table-topper will be confirmed late in the Group G matches two hours later.
Korea’s is the third knockout berth given to Asian Football Confederation(AFC) members at Qatar following Australia and Japan.