South Korea coach Uli Stielike revealed that he had considered leaving out two-goal hero Son Heung-Min for Thursday’s Asian Cup quarter-final against Uzbekistan because of concerns over the player’s health.
Still struggling after being floored by a flu bug earlier in the tournament, the 22-year-old superstar showed a warrior’s heart in Melbourne, striking twice in extra time as the Koreans beat Uzbekistan 2-0 to keep their title hopes alive.
“I nearly didn’t pick Son because of his illness,” Stielike said after his side had booked a place in the last four, where they will face either Iran or Iraq. “It was a good decision not to take him out. But you could see he wasn’t at 100 percent.”
Injuries had already cruelly robbed the German of winger Lee Chung-Yong and midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, but South Korea have found a way to win all four of their games so far as they bid to win their first Asian Cup since 1960.
And South Korea’s golden boy, dubbed “Sonaldo” by his Bayer Leverkusen team mates, came up trumps, ending a goal drought for his country dating back 10 matches to last year’s World Cup in Brazil.
“He scored twice but you haven’t seen the real Heung-Min Son yet because of his sickness,” insisted Stielike. “He’s trying too hard. He gave the ball away a lot and that’s not normal for a player who plays in the Champions League. He needs to show more precision and I hope we see it in this tournament.”
Son is a huge celebrity in South Korea, where his Beatles-style floppy haircuts and romantic dalliances with K-pop stars are regularly splashed across the gossip pages.
But the jet-heeled striker’s value to a South Korea side which has failed to hit the heights since reaching the 2002 World Cup semi-finals is immeasurable.
“Whenever I play I try to give everything I have to help the team win,” said Son, who was stretchered off moments before the final whistle with exhaustion. “It felt great to score the two goals but to be honest I was never worried — I knew the goals would come again.”
Running on fumes, Son took his goals superbly, glancing in a header after 104 minutes and smashing home a second after a lightning break down the right by substitute Cha Du-Ri to trigger wild celebration among the thousands of Red Devils fans.
“We have a long way to go still,” said Son. “We’ll pick ourselves up and go again. It doesn’t matter who we will play in the semi-finals. We just to have to do our own thing and be prepared.”