PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil - South Korea's defensive problems returned to the fore as it fell 4-2 to Algeria in Porto Alegre on Sunday, giving the African country its first World Cup victory in 32 years.
Facing a far more aggressive opponent than in its opening match with Russia, Korea displayed a less careful and more desperate game against a heavy defence and speedy offence. Midfielder Son Heung-min and captain Koo Ja-cheol softened the blow with second-half goals, but the team's weak defence could not stop the ruthless Algerian attack.
With this victory, Algeria is second in the group standings behind Belgium. South Korea will go on to face Belgium, its third and toughest opponent.
"We knew that the Algerian team was very strong, and we did not underestimate them," said Korean head coach Hong Myung-bo after the match. "For us, the defence wasn't up to what it should have been. I think that experience-wise, the defenders weren't up to the standard.
"But the game is over, and … we will continue to do our best. That is the only thing that is left for us to do."
Islam Slimani took advantage of an inattentive Korean back line in the 26th minute, followed by Rafik Halliche scoring off a corner kick two minutes later. The Algerian defence played calmly, methodically passing the ball down the line as the Korean forwards stood too timid to press. Then it lobbed a long ball over the midfield to Abdelmoumene Djabou, who scored the third goal in the 38th minute to ensure the Algerians' dominance.
Algeria had 12 shots throughout the first half with six on goal, while Korea had none.
"We focused on making chances and finding opportunities, but we didn't have many in front of goal," Hong recounted. "This was probably because of a lack of ability of our individual players. In the beginning the defence crumbled and we conceded three goals in the first half."
After halftime, Korea sprang to life and Son took on a sea of defenders to slide the ball home in the 50th minute. After a long ball hit him on the back, he faked a shot to buy himself time and space to send a left-footed finish through goalkeeper Rais Mbolhi's legs.
But Korea's defensive maladies did not stop. The back line stalled as Algerian midfielder Sofiane Feghouli slid the ball left to midfielder Yacine Brahimi, who slotted it squarely behind goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong on 62 minutes.
With the score at 4-1, Korea's offence did not give up. Second-half substitute Kim Shin-wook, who came on for forward Park Chu-young, headed the ball down to Son in the area in the 72nd minute. Son's shot was blocked, but spilled to Lee Keun-ho, who sent it back across the face of the goal for captain Koo Ja-cheol to finish from close range.
Koo took no time to celebrate and sprinted straight back to the centre to restart play.
With 10 minutes to go, the Koreans began firing desperate long balls to "Our Giant" Kim, towering at 1.96 meters tall in the front, but he had little assistance to play out attacks.
In Korea's final attempts to score, Son blasted a free kick into the Algerian wall, but they only half cleared. Then Kim brought down a header for the onrushing striker Ji Dong-won, but Ji's shot flew just wide of the far post.
The defeated South Korean squad made its rounds at the end of the match to pay gratitude to the thousands of red-shirted supporters in the stands before leaving the pitch.
Coach Hong criticised the lack of communication in defence and offence, particularly when they saw the Algerian attackers moving.
"It's important for the defensive players to communicate among each other. I think it was a good experience. It's something we can learn from, though the three goals we gave up in the first half were really regrettable," he said. "We'll have to put this loss (behind us) and prepare for the Belgium match."
Algerian coach Vahid Halilhodzic concurred that Korea's defence seemed to panic under pressure, and allowed his offence to take advantage of spaces.
"If you look at our tactics, we played in intervals and in depths. … Brahimi used the intervals and the spaces that the Korean team left. And then we counterattacked, we played in depth, and this is why there were many goal opportunities," he said. "The Korean team is well structured and they do their pressing very well, but when they have (the ball played deep on their side), it's a problem for them."
Algeria basked in the fresh possibility of reaching the Round of 16 for the first time. After being defeated by Belgium 2-1 last week, a victory against Russia would send Algeria to the knockout rounds.
"You have to thank the coach. We did whatever we could," said Man of the Match Slimani, who scored the first goal and assisted in the second. "It is a dream to reach the knockout stage and it's our aim."
Halilhodzic praised his players for an "almost perfect" first half, where they capitalised on the space available and maintained an impenetrable defence. The victory reflected three years of rebuilding a team, then ranked in the mid-50s, which now stands at world's No. 22 and is the best in Africa, he noted.
"I think after each match, we will get better and better. And I think that this victory, after 32 years, will do a lot for us. We are in high spirits," he said.
"There will be an additional challenge, which is to win against Russia," he added. "And this would be great for Algerian football to reach the knockout stage. It will be complicated, but everything is possible."
Earlier in the day, fellow Group H contenders Belgium and Russia played a stalemate until the 88th minute, when Belgium's Divock Origi scored the lone goal.
With Sunday's matches, Belgium sits atop the group with six points, followed by Algeria with three and Russia and Korea tied with one. The best two teams of Group H will take on the top two of Group G, consisting of Germany, the US, Ghana and Portugal.
South Korea plays Belgium in Sao Paulo on June 26 while Algeria heads to Curitiba to take on Russia for the final set of group matches.