Saudi Arabia kept alive their hopes of a Quarter Final appearance by coming from behind to defeat a determined North Korea 4-1 in Melbourne on Wednesday evening.
The Koreans started brightly and had Saudi Arabia on the back foot for most of the first half, with a boil-over appearing to be on the cards. However they fatigued badly in the second half, allowing the Green Falcons to storm away with the three points with a dominant second half showing.
DPR Korea took a surprise early lead when Pak Kwang-Ryong fired in volley that forced Waleed Abdullah into a good save, but the Al-Shabab custodian could only parry it into the path of Vegalta Sendai’s Ryang Yong-Gi who duly knocked it home. It broke an Asian Cup goal drought for the reclusive nation dating back to 1992.
The goal came just minutes after they had the first chance of the game when defender Sim Hyon-Jin found space on the edge of the box, his bullet-like shot forcing a fine save from Abdullah, who was called on again from the resulting corner.
Saudi Arabia’s first chance came just minutes later when Nawaf Al-Abid was played in behind the defence, chipping the ball to the back post but Naif Hazazi could only direct his header into the back of Jon Kwang-Ik’s head, deflecting out for a corner.
Hazazi again came close minutes later, but his header, directed back across goal, sailed agonisingly wide.
DPR Korea continued to impress throughout the half, with striker Pak Kwang-Ryong proving a constant menace for the Saudi defence, who struggled to cope with his size and mobility. Saudi Arabia looked like a side who have just changed their coach, lacking structure and cohesion.
They were given a lifeline just before half time, Cha Jong-Hyok turning it over on half way, leading to the equaliser for Saudi Arabia with just five minutes remaining in the first half. Mohammed Al-Sahlawi skipped away from Cha, finding the dangerous Nawaf Al-Abid who cleverly teed up Naif Hazazi, the Al-Shabab attacker neatly finishing the text book counter attack.
Al-Abid came close to giving the Green Falcons the lead on the stroke of half time with what would have been a goal of the tournament contender, controlling the ball with his chest before turning and hitting it on the volley, ala James Rodriguez at the World Cup, forcing a fine save from Ri Myong-Guk.
The second half did little to quell the attacking intent of both sides, with DPR Korea attacking right from the first whistle, but they quickly wilted away.
Another turnover saw Saudi Arabia capitalise again, working a series of passes to find space for Abdulaziz Al-Dosari who cut it back for Al-Sahlawi to tap in and put extra life into the Saudi side.
It turned into complete disaster for North Korea just moments later, a poor back pass splitting the defence and Jang Hyong-Suk, in his attempt to clear, hit the ball straight into Al-Sahlawi, rebounding into open space which allowed the striker an easy poke home to seal his brace and give Saudi Arabia a comfortable 3-1 lead.
With fifteen minutes remaining Salem Al-Dawsari produced a moment of magic, dribbling his way past defenders on the byline and into the box, with his shot hitting the crossbar before hitting the raised hands of Ri Yong-Jik, the referee pointing to the spot after a few seconds of confusion. For his part, Ri was shown a straight red.
Al-Abid was tasked with taking the spot kick and while his effort was poor, saved onto the post, he did enough to get to the rebound and bundle it home.
Al-Sahlawi should have sealed his hattrick with 10 minutes remaining but he inexplicably shot wide, ensuring the match finished 4-1.
The result means that North Korea’s tournament is essentially over before their final group match against China on Sunday, while Saudi Arabia face Uzbekistan in Melbourne knowing that three points could seal their progression to the quarterfinals.