A sold-out Canberra Stadium played witness to China’s 2-1 victory over North Korea in a match dubbed the “Alliance Derby”.
With China already qualified for the quarter finals as the group leaders and North Korea surrendering five goals in their first two matches, nothing was riding on the match. That fact didn’t stop China from fielding a very strong starting side, which included the heroes of the previous two matches in Hao Junmin, Wang Dalei and Sun Ke.
The latter scored within the first minute of play through the poor judgement of defender Jang Song Hyok, who allowed the Jiangsu Sainty star to slide home an easy attempt past the unprepared Ri Myong Guk.
Jiang Zhipeng earned the game’s first yellow for a brash sliding challenge on winger Jong Il Gwan in what proved to be a heavily-contested match between the two political allies.
As the match went on, China allowed Chollima more possession with the intent on fast breaks that can disrupt what has become a notoriously shaky defence.
O Hyok Chol and Ryang Yong Gi both had narrow misses from mid-range attempts, though Round One hero Wang Dalei was largely untested between the sticks and often found himself roaming around the penalty area.
A first half substitution for the North Koreans exemplified the difficulties Chollima had in breaking down a well-structured China side that ended the first half with 67 percent of possession.
Jong Il Gwan and O Hyok Chol combined on the edge of the penalty area, which looked to give Wang something to do, but Jong’s volley was skied over the crossbar to the disappointment of the many neutrals looking for more talking points.
Sun Ke completed his brace three minutes from half time from Jiang Zhipeng’s cross, diving to head the ball past Ri Myong Guk, and Team Dragon almost managed a third goal just moments later when Yu Hai managed to chip the ball over Pyongyang FC goalkeeper. Jon Kwang Ik managed to head the ball clear on the goal line to save further blushes for the secretive nation.
North Korea started the second half in a much better fashion than the first, with Jong Il Gwan stinging the palms of Wang Dalei with a fierce strike before a reply attempt was blocked by the Chinese defence.
With an eye on the quarter final against Australia in the testing conditions of Brisbane, captain Zheng Zhi was brought off the pitch to a large round of applause in the 53rd minute and replaced by Yu Hanchao.
North Korea brought themselves back into the contest four minutes later, when a clever through ball to Pak Kwang Ryong found its way to the foot of Jon, who adjusted himself to take the shot. His attempt deflected from the goal line onto Gao Lin and then the upright, sending it in for Chollima’s second goal in 20 years.
They had a chance shortly after to equalise, when defender Ro Hak Su charged forward to receive the ball and cross it to the unmarked Jon, but the Rimyongsu midfielder’s header went over the bar to the shock of coach Jo Tong Sop.
Sun Ke, who now sported a bandage on his head following an earlier challenge, was temporarily forced off the pitch after the hour mark with leg cramp and was substituted as a precaution in the 70th minute.
It didn’t cause hesitation in either team for the remainder of the half and that was apparent two minutes later, when Han Song Hyok and Hao Junmin colliding as they both attempted to slide towards the ball.
Vegalta Sendai veteran midfielder Ryang Yong Gi attempted to get his name on the scoresheet with an effort that went skyward as the North Koreans desperately tried to create another chance that could give them an equaliser in front of the impressive crowd of 18,457.
Jong had a right to question referee Abdulrahman Hussain’s dismissal of a potential penalty in the 78th minute, attempting to latch onto a through ball before being brought down by the stray arm of Zhang Linpeng.
Looking for their first point in the 2015 Asian Cup, a half volley by So Hyon Uk flew past Wang Dalei and crashed into the crossbar, with the off-target shot seeming to revive some of the Juche spirit of the North Koreans, who looked lively in the final ten minutes.
Unfortunately for the eliminated North Koreans, they leave the tournament without their sought-after point and at the bottom of the group, while China have won all three of their group stage matches for the first time in their history and advance to the quarter finals as the undisputed Group B leaders.