A brace from Koo Ja-Cheol earned South Korea a somewhat nervy 2-1 victory over a plucky Bahrain in their Asian Cup Group C opening match at the Al Gharafa Stadium on Monday.
Koo struck either side of half-time as Cho Kwang-Rae’s team, who are bidding to end a 51-year continental title drought, avenged their defeat at Bahrain’s hands in the group phase of the 2007 tournament.
There was a tense finish to the game for the Koreans, however, with Faouzi Aaish netting from the penalty spot in the 85th minute after Kwak Tae-Hwi had been sent off for bringing down Abdulla Al Dakeel inside the box.
“It would have been better if we had avoided conceding the penalty, but it happened, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Cho.
“Looking ahead to the rest of the tournament, with each game we should aim to get better and better in terms of organisation and controlling games from the beginning.”
Victory took the Koreans level on points with Australia at the top of Group C, but they endured a more awkward evening than the Socceroos had in their 4-0 demolition of India.
Australia got their Asian Cup campaign off to a decisive start with red-hot Everton star Tim Cahill collecting two goals.
Played at an Al Sadd Stadium packed with noisy expatriate Indians, a convincing win was needed by the Socceroos to demonstrate their tournament credentials against a team ranked 142 in the world.
They comfortably delivered with the dangerous Cahill, playing up front as the lone striker, a constant threat.
He got the opener in the 11th minute before former Liverpool man Harry Kewell made it 2-0 14 minutes later.
Brett Holman added a third on the stroke of half-time before Cahill completed the demolition in the second period.
Their start was in stark contrast to four years ago at their maiden Asian Cup, where they stumbled to a draw with Oman before losing to eventual winners Iraq.
The Australians squeezed through to the knock-out stages back then by thrashing Thailand 4-0, but went out on penalties to Japan in the quarters.
In breezy conditions, both sides began slowly with Australia getting the first sniff of goal on nine minutes when Holman looped the ball in to Blackburn’s Brett Emerton, who fired straight at the goalkeeper.
But with a side packed by experienced Europe-based players, it was only a matter of time before the Socceroos got the breakthrough.
Emerton looked suspiciously offside when he was put through on the right but the flag stayed down and he sent a low cross into the six-yard box, where Cahill was lurking to bury the ball in the back of the net.
Rank outsiders India, in the tournament for the first time in 27 years, were out of their depth but got a look at goal when captain Climax Lawrence’s shot from 25 yards drifted well wide of the post soon after.
Australia should have been 2-0 up on 20 minutes when Cahill headed home but he was adjudged offside by UAE referee Ali Al Badwawi. Replays suggested the goal should have stood.
They made amends just minutes later when Luke Wilkshire found Kewell in space just outside the penalty area and the Galatasaray midfielder clinically drilled the ball into the bottom left-hand corner.
With Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer having nothing to do in the Australian goal, a third goal almost came on the half-hour with Cahill in the thick of the action again.
India were struggling to contain him and he went close once again when he chested down a long ball and half-volleyed it just over the bar.
The third goal was inevitable and it came just before half-time when Holman got his head on the end of an Emerton cross after some good build-up work.
Australia began the second-half in total control and Cahill got his second in the 65th minute when he outjumped four defenders to meet a Wilkshire cross and angle his header past the goalkeeper.
India, with Englishman Bob Houghton in charge, now have their work cut out with Group C clashes against mighty South Korea and a very capable Bahrain still awaiting them.
South Korea meet Australia on Friday in a match that seems destined to decide which of the two favourites finishes top of the pool, while Bahrain will bid to keep their hopes of a knockout round place alive by beating India.
Despite the narrow nature of the defeat, Bahrain coach Salman Sharida conceded that his side had deserved to lose.
“I think the Korean team played better than the Bahrain team,” he said.
“They controlled the midfield. I think Korea deserved to win the match, but we have another two matches and we may play better than we played today.”
South Korea may be accustomed to playing at sold-out arenas crammed with passionate fans in their homeland, but the official attendance at the 22,000-capacity stadium was less than 7,000.
The first half was similarly low-key, with South Korea occasionally imprecise in possession and 19-year-old striker Ji Dong-Won, replacing the injured Park Chu-Young, struggling to provide a cutting edge up front.
Manchester United star Park Ji-Sung twice went close, testing Mahmood Mansoor with a low shot and flashing a header wide, while Koo also brought a save from the Bahrain goalkeeper after jinking inside from the right.
The breakthrough came five minutes before half-time and, as with many of the goals in the competition to date, it owed more to luck than dead-eyed finishing.
A mis-hit shot by Ki Sung-Yueng arrived at the feet of 21-year-old Jeju United midfielder Koo, whose shot clipped the thigh of the sliding Abdulla Marzooqi and looped over a stranded Mansoor into the net.
The best Bahrain could offer in response was a pair of long-range free-kicks from Mahmood Abdulrahman that bounced into the clutches of South Korea goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong.
Koo completed his brace seven minutes into the second half, side-footing into an empty net from a matter of yards after Mansoor had done well to claw out a dipping effort from South Korea right-back Cha Du-Ri.
Their resolve broken, Bahrain began to leave gaps at the back and Cha almost made it 3-0 after striding into space on the right but his left-foot shot did not have sufficient curl to bend inside the left-hand post.
Kwak looked bemused as referee Abdullah Mohamed Al Hilali showed him the red card with five minutes to play, but he undoubtedly clipped Al Dakeel’s heels as the substitute raced into the box.
Aaish calmly placed the penalty into the bottom-left corner, with Jung then called upon to tip a looping Abdulla Fatadi header over the bar as Bahrain pressed for an equaliser.
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