North Korea scored their first Asian Cup goal in 23 years on Wednesday but Saudi Arabia dashed their hopes of an upset by storming back for a 4-1 win.
A second defeat in Group B left the North Koreans all but eliminated while breathing new life into a Saudi campaign that had been flagging after they were stunned 1-0 by China in their opening game at the weekend.
North Korea picked up a yellow card after just 15 seconds when Jong Il-Gwan, being tracked by Newcastle United, went into the book for a wild lunge.
They continued to tear into the Saudis as they went in search of a first Asian Cup victory since 1980, and the dream looked on after 11 minutes as Japan-based Ryang Yong-Gi slammed in the rebound after Pak Kwang-Ryong’s fierce drive had been parried by goalkeeper Waleed Abdullah.
But Naif Hazazi equalised with a clinical finish against the run of play eight minutes before the interval. The Saudi forward’s joy was unbridled, having fluffed a penalty in their shock 1-0 loss China on Saturday.
Strike partner Mohammed Al Sahlawi poked the Gulf side in front seven minutes after the break, before profiting from some horror defending to roll in a third moments later as North Korea began to unravel.
Saudi Arabia, who won the last of their three Asian Cup titles in 1996, continued to press, Al Sahlawi squandering a golden opportunity to complete his hat-trick by dragging horribly wide when clean through on goal.
Nawaf Alabid added a fourth after reacting sharply to having his penalty saved by Ri Myong-Guk. Midfielder Ri Yong-Jik conceded the spot kick and was given his marching orders for handling the ball after Alabid’s delicate chip came back off the bar.
– Third time lucky –
“I told Nawaf to take the penalty after what happened against China,” smiled Saudi coach Cosmin Olaroiu. “We will score the next one.”
The Romanian denied that he had been worried after going behind early.
“I knew North Korea would be dangerous on the counter-attack and they gave us trouble,” he said. “But I was confident because it’s difficult for them to play the entire game like that, to keep the pressure on us.
“I knew we would wear them down and find space, and we had to take some risks. Sometimes you have to assume those risks to win, but we showed our quality today.”
Pyongyang frequently lavishes cars and apartments on athletes who bring glory to the state, but the North Korean players at least had the consolation of being cheered to the rafters by a crowd of 12,000 in Melbourne for their plucky display.
“Nobody will be happy with this result,” shrugged North Korea coach Jo Tong-Sop, when asked how he thought North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, an avid sports fan, would react to the defeat.
Media reports claimed the players and coaching staff who flopped at the 2010 World Cup were subjected to a six-hour public inquisition for “betraying” North Korea’s ideological struggle before being sent to work on a building site.
“We began well but we conceded a soft second goal and that caused us a lot of mental stress,” Jo added. “After that we just lost concentration.”