MELBOURNE - South Korea's golden boy Son Heung-Min struck twice in extra time to give the Taeguk Warriors a 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in a nail-biting Asian Cup quarter-final on Thursday.
The man dubbed "Sonaldo" by his team-mates scored with a diving header after 104 minutes and slammed home a second moments before the final whistle, leaving on a stretcher with exhaustion as the Koreans set up a meeting against either Iran or Iraq in the last four.
"There was big pressure on us," South Korea coach Uli Stielike told reporters after coaxing his team of walking wounded to a fourth straight win. "If we'd lost, we would have been on the plane home and face a lot of criticism." Injuries had already ruled out winger Lee Chung-Yong and midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, while superstar Son has yet to fully regain fitness after being floored by a flu bug earlier in the competition.
"No other team has had to show such mental strength and sacrifice as our boys," added Stielike. "To lose two of their leaders and still pick them themselves up. I nearly didn't pick Son because of his illness - he's still not 100 per cent.
"I told the players this morning that we are all human and everyone has a shitty day. The problem is getting to 90 minutes and still being ready to push through. The boys played 120 minutes and they were all dead. Now our biggest issue is medical." South Korea, World Cup semi-finalists in 2002 but seeking to end 55 years of hurt in Asia's showcase tournament, had to toil for their victory against 2011 semi-finalists Uzbekistan in Melbourne.
Goalkeeper Kim Jin-Hyeon raced off his line to deny Sanjar Tursunov during the early skirmishes as Uzbekistan's aerial assault caused havoc in the Korean defence.
At the other end, Son's curling effort was clawed away brilliantly by Ignatiy Nesterov.
Striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop's header forced another acrobatic save from Nesterov five minutes after the break, but moments later Kim's attempted clearance almost ricocheted into the Korean goal after cannoning off defender Kim Jin-Su's backside.
The Koreans continued to press, a mazy run from Son taking him past three players only to be robbed by a last-ditch tackle as he prepared to pull the trigger.
An air-shot from Nam Tae-Hee with the goal at his mercy added to South Korea's frustration, though the Red Devils were lucky to escape when Lutfulla Turaev contrived to miss an open goal after 78 minutes after being picked out by Sardor Rashidov.
But as both teams began to wilt, Son popped up to glance Kim Jin-Su's dinked cross past Nesterov's despairing dive before collapsing to the turf with fatigue.
Having broken the pain barrier just to reach extra time, Son capped a gutsy display by smashing home from close range, after a lung-busting charge down the right from substitute Cha Du-Ri, to leave the Uzbeks shattered.
"We had a lot of chances today but luck wasn't on our side," said Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov, annoyed that Saudi referee Fahad Almirdasi failed to blow for a free kick on the edge of the box late in extra time when substitute Timur Kapadze took a tumble.
"The quality of the referee wasn't good. He missed the foul, but we had enough chances to score. All that was missing was a little bit of luck."