The best players make the difference in the biggest games, and Son Heung-min is certainly one of the elite… (日本語版はこちらです)
We are now at the business end of the Asian Cup and it is time for the big players to start proving why their nations’ hopes rest on their shoulders.
Son Heung-min was the first to step up to the plate on Thursday night, seizing the responsibility for South Korea and finding the net twice against Uzbekistan to ensure the Taeguk Warriors of a place in the semi-finals.
There were no draws in any of the 24 group games in Australia, but the margins are far finer in knockout competition – as we saw as the Koreans and Uzbeks exchanged blows over 120 minutes in Melbourne – and cool heads are required to make sure there are no regrets.
Lutfulla Turaev could have been the hero for Mirdjalal Kasimov’s side but sent the ball over when presented with a free header into an open goal, and while Son had fluffed his lines at other times – trying to be too cute and tying himself up in knots when he could have scored – he didn’t let his head go down. In fact, he used it instead to nod narrowly beyond Ignatiy Nesterov as the ball came back to him in the six-yard box in the 104th minute.
The Bayer Leverkusen man had been a constant threat throughout the game, floating around in the pockets of space between midfield and attack and making it incredibly difficult for the opposition to pick him up. If the defender steps up then the likes of Lee Keun-ho are always buzzing around in behind to take advantage of the space, but if they don’t try and close him down then Son is more than capable of playing the next pass with his first touch, instantly changing the dynamic of his team’s attack.
Within the first 25 minutes he had already created chances for Lee Jeong-hyeop and Lee Keun-ho, as well as producing a sensational effort that Nesterov needed to be at full-stretch to tip over.
He had also showcased his rare ability in the final group game against Australia, when he replaced the injured Koo Ja-cheol just after half-time.
There had been complaints galore about the pitch in Brisbane, but Son didn’t have too many problems dancing through the tackles during his 40-minute cameo – skipping by the Socceroos players as he nonchalantly ate up 50 metres of the pitch to turn defence into attack for his side. (Admittedly he did mess up the final pass, although that was partly because Kim Jin-su didn’t complete the run he should have made to support his teammate).
Runs like that have seen Son compared, inevitably, to Cristiano Ronaldo, and there is an unfussy elegance to everything he does when in possession. In the 71st minute in Melbourne he took off on another sauntering run through the heart of the Uzbekistan defence, selling Sanjar Tursunov a dummy and sending the midfielder lunging into thin air, before twisting Shavkatjon Mulladjanov inside out inside the penalty area.
He was ultimately thwarted on that occasion by another last-ditch tackle, but continued to probe and was eventually rewarded with his extra-time opener before wrapping things up with a thunderous drive at the end of the match after Cha Du-ri had done superbly to create the opportunity.
“Son got his two goals but he can play better,” his coach Uli Stielike said ominously after the game. “He lost the ball a lot in the 120 minutes and these are not the mistakes of a player who plays in the Champions League.
“I don’t think we saw the real Son Heung-min in these four games because of sickness. A lot of the problem is that he works with too much hassle. He’s a powerful player with a lot of speed. But in the right moment he has to calm down a little bit. This is the thing that he can do better.”
Those points are valid, but are surely also the coach trying to keep his star player’s feet on the ground. Son is still only 22, let’s not forget, and can surely only get better. A terrifying thought for defenders around Asia, and, indeed, the rest of the world.