|Na Sang-ho, left, cheers with Son Heung-min after scoring a goal during the qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup against Turkmenistan in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Jon Duerden
South Korea took an uncertain but successful first step on the road to the 2022 World Cup on Tuesday, defeating Turkmenistan 2-0 in Ashgabat. If the team is to reach a tenth successive World Cup there could be as many 21 more games to come but for now, coach Paulo Bento will take the three points and not worry too much about the performance.
In truth, the journeys that took Korea to all those past tournaments were not always been easy on the eye. The men from Seoul have rarely traveled to a place like the capital of Turkmenistan and produced pretty and free-flowing soccer. Yet grinding out results on the road is a useful skill to have.
The lead was taken in somewhat fortuitous circumstances after just 12 minutes. Lee Yong was a constant threat from the right and his cross was cleared by a Turkmenistan defender but it fell straight at the feet of Na Sang-ho and the FC Tokyo player shot first time for his first goal for his country.
The Taeguk Warriors continued to push forward, looking to put the game beyond the Central Asian host. Hwang Ui-jo has been in red-hot goalscoring form for his country in the past year but the forward failed to score when in good positions.
Son Heung-min told his team-mates before the game that they would have to lift their game after the 2-2 tie with Georgia in a warm-up in Istanbul if they wanted to qualify for the World Cup. At times the Tottenham Hotspur star, now captain of his country, looked a little frustrated with the lack of quality on display and was perhaps guilty of trying to do too much himself.
After the break, Turkmenistan started to show Korea that a price could be paid for all the missed chances and had a few opportunities of their own. The Korean defense held firm and eight minutes from time, the victory was sealed in spectacular fashion.
Jung Woo-young stepped up from 30 meters out from goal and curled the free-kick over the wall and into the net. That was that and the players celebrated in the knowledge that the points were heading back to Seoul.
They also know that there will be much tougher tests ahead and that Korea will need to improve for upcoming games with North Korea and Lebanon in Group H. For now however, the first three points will be welcome in what is a long road to Qatar.