CUIABA, Brazil ― South Korea's meticulous World Cup preparations paid off enough to stop its losing streak, as the Taeguk Warriors reached a 1-1 draw with Russia on Tuesday in the final opening group match in Brazil.
Korean forward Lee Keun-ho scored the opening goal in the 68th minute, followed by a dramatic equalizer by Russia's Aleksandr Kerzhakov just six minutes later.
The draw stopped Korea's painful pre-World Cup slide after being routed by Tunisia 1-0 and Ghana 4-0. It also marked Korea's ninth appearance at the World Cup and fourth straight opener without a loss, and Russia's return to the global football tournament after 12 years.
"In such a tournament, the first match is always the most difficult, and so there's a lot of pressure. (Considering) that, I think our players did very well," coach Hong Myung-bo said after the match, adding that the players performed "intelligently" both tactically and physically.
"We were winning and we allowed an equalizer, so in a way we would have of course preferred to have won. But it was the first match and I am very happy and satisfied with the performance of my players."
After a cautious first half of short passes and few risks by both sides, both teams came back to the pitch after half time with renewed aggression. Russian midfielder Victor Fayzulin headed straight for a strike within moments of the restart, but goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong kept him out.
Minutes later, Korean captain Koo Ja-cheol returned the offensive with a strong shot on goal, followed soon after by a strike by Ki Seung-yueng and a direct kick by Kim Young-gwon that tested Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who was shaky in his save.
Then forward Lee, who came on as a second-half substitute for Park Chu-young, found a clearing behind a lone defender and hit a shot from distance that Akinfeev failed to hold on to.
Russia rushed to equalize the score. Just a few minutes after entering the field, substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov took advantage of a scramble in the penalty area, securing Russia's equalizer in the 74th minute while Korea's keeper Jung was still on the ground.
The Korean squad had spent its past two training camps focusing narrowly on the Russia opener by analysing every opponent, preparing for the team's famous counterattacks, scrutinizing its own faults in recent defeats and getting everyone on the same page to mend its brittle defence.
"We fully studied the Russian team. We also studied the play style of the coach, and so I think that our players played very intelligently," said coach Hong. "In the second half there were a few dangerous situations because all of the Russian players became the defence, we prepared for that.
"So we took the ball away from them, and the counterattack, that is something that the Russian team often does and so we know that often happens, and so that's what we prepared for."
Their newfound organisation since their last two defeats was apparent throughout the match, with the squad exhibiting more conscious spacing, cleaner passes and, perhaps their biggest concern lately, a cohesive back line.