CUIABA – Gp H: Russia 1, South Korea 1
—- Fabio Capello welcomed, as an early 68th birthday present, the way his Russia side fought back to hold the South Koreans with a goal by Aleksandr Kerzhakov.
The substitute drove the ball home to join Vladimir Beschastnykh as Russia’s all-time top scorer with 26 goals and the Korea had led through a long-range shot from Lee Keun-ho which slipped through the hands of embarrassed goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
The late excitement in Cuiaba was in contrast to much of what had gone before.
South Korea had been marginally the more inventive although they needed a significant amount of luck to take the lead as the edgy Akinfeev gifted them the opening goal.
But the substitutions by Capello – who led England to the last 16 in 2010 – proved crucial for Russia, looking to build a platform from which to advance to the knockout stages for the first time since the Soviet Union reached the second phase in 1986.
Son Heung-min had Korea’s best two chances of the first half, linking well with Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young on both occasions. But he failed to hit the target with either chance, while captain Koo Ja-cheol saw a deflected shot fly just wide.
Russia had been limited to long-range efforts, Sergey Ignashevich’s free-kick forcing Jung Sung-ryong into an unconvincing save.
Neither goalkeeper inspired much confidence and after Jung had tipped a shot from Victor Fayzulin over the bar in the first minute of the second half, captain Vasily Berezoutski headed into the side netting from the resulting corner.
The sides then traded speculative shots and Akinfeev struggled to keep out a free-kick from Kim Young-Gwon.
But that was nothing compared with the error he made on 68 minutes, when he allowed a 25-yard head-height shot from substitute Lee to slip through his hands and into the net.
Russia, however, had been showing more urgency since the introduction of Alan Dzagoev, and a second Capello substitution paid off almost immediately.
Kerzhakov, the 31-year-old Zenit St Petersburg forward and record goalscorer in Russian domestic football, had been on the field for just three minutes when he struck to earn a deserved point on the eve of the Italian’s 68th birthday.
Dzagoev’s low shot was well saved but South Korea could not clear and when the ball cannoned into Kerzhakov, he showed the necessary composure to fire home a right-footed shot from six yards out.
Russia saw the chance to press for a winner and Alexander Kokorin went close with two headers before Aleksandr Samedov fired well wide in stoppage time.
Capello said: “It was a good game, they ran a lot in the first half and then felt tired. You saw the goal they scored, it was not easy to react but the players were really good and most important for me was the reaction. We also twice had a chance to score a second goal.
“I know Kerzhakov did well, he’s a fantastic player. He always offers us a way to score goals. I think that was the best birthday present I could have had.
South Korea’s Hong Myung-bo said: “In such a tournament, the first match is the most difficult. There is a lot of pressure on it, so I thought the players played very well.
“I think our players really did their utmost on the pitch today. Tactically and physically, each and every moment they played intelligently. “We focused our rhythm and organisation on this match. I think it worked well. The condition of players and organisation of the team was good.”