Expected to challenge all the way for the Asian Cup crown, South Korea were somewhat unexpectedly pushed to the boundaries by Bahrain.
The last-16 clash at Rashid Stadium began in sunshine, and concluded under the floodlights. In the end, South Korea were beaming 2-1 victors, the two-time champions letting go of a lead with 13 minutes of normal time remaining before striking the decisive blow midway through the additional period.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, making his second appearance at this tournament and captain once again, looked exhausted once the final whistle went. Paulo Bento, his manager, wore the expression of a relieved man.
It was tough and for spells tense, but his side live on.
"The performance today maybe wasn't so good as it was in the previous games," Bento said.
"More than the rhythm that we play, what happened was that we made a lot of easy mistakes, easy connections, easy passes and we lost the ball easily.
"Without the pressure of the opponent, the game became worse for us and easy for the opponents.
"We should be more effective in the way that we make our build up."
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With Son in the side, Bento will realise he possesses a trump card that few others do. Under consistently close attention against Bahrain on Tuesday, the Spurs forward played a key role in South Korea’s opener.
Finding himself free, finally, of a Bahraini marker deep into the first half, he sprayed the ball out to right-back Lee Yong, whose low cross was only partially cleared at the feet of striker Hwang Ui-jo by goalkeeper Sayed Shubbar Alawi.
The ball fell kindly to Hwang Hee-chan, leaving the lively winger to slot into the empty net. Bento celebrated wildly. Little wonder: it had taken 43 minutes for the breakthrough.
Ranked 60 spots below South Korea in the Fifa standings, Bahrain bounced back in the second half. On 70 minutes, Jamal Rashid curled an effort that was destined for the top corner, only for goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu’s brilliantly athletic save to thwart him.
Soon after, though, he could do nothing to prevent the equaliser. First, Sayed Dhiya Saeed scuffed a long-range shot straight at teammate Mahdi Al Humaidan, whose own attempt was kicked off the line by Hong Chul’s deserate lunge. The ball landed at the feet of Mohamed Al Romaihi who, seven yards out, could hardly miss. Bahrain’s No 13 had struck 13 minutes from time. South Korea’s luck appeared to have eventually run out.
Bento’s side should have won it in injury time. A mistake from Waleed Al Hayam allowed Hwang Ui-jo to race through on goal but, as the angle narrowed and Alawi closed in, he sliced a tame effort well wide.
In extra time, South Korea reasserted their authority, although substitute Lee Seung-woo fired over from inside the Bahraini area following Son’s lay-off. With Alwai carried off on a stretch off, an unmarked Kim Young-gwon headed Son’s corner off target.
Then, in an instant, South Korea’s dismay turned to delight. On 106 minutes, Lee Young’s pinpoint cross settled plum on Kim Jin-su’s head at the Bahraini back post and the substitute stooped to nod what proved the winner. Relief palpable, Bento led his bench in rushing onto the pitch.
For Miroslav Soukup, Bento's Bahrain counterpart, his side deserved great credit for their endeavour.
“I want to thank my team,” he said. “I have great respect for the way they performed against one of the best teams in Asia. No one could’ve imagined that the score would have been 1-1 after 90 minutes.
"Eighty per cent of the team are amateurs who go to work and then come for training. And to see them fly down for the Asian Cup, and play a team that had professional players in Europe, is a great effort. This team has a great future with some really good young players.”
It was just that, ultimately, South Korea’s were better. They could have won by more, after Ju Se-jong struck the base of the post in the second period of extra time, but they need not have worried. They saw out the game to seal a spot in Friday’s quarter-final. The two-time continental kings, seeking to snap at 59-year wait, maintain their quest for title No 3.