To the rescue

DAEGU, South Korea, AFP

A dramatic late equalizer from Ahn Jung-Hwan, the pin up boy of South Korean football, saw the World Cup co-hosts keep their dream alive with a 1-1 draw against the United States here Monday.

Super-sub Ahn, who plays in Italy with Perugia, nodded home a 78th-minute free-kick to save Korea from defeat after Clint Mathis had put the U.S. ahead in the first half.

South Korea’s Choi Yong-Soo had a glorious chance to snatch a late winner, but shot over from point blank range as the USA escaped with a point.

Ahn’s equalizer sparked relief amongst the hordes of red-shirted Korean fans who had crammed into the 65,000-capacity Daegu Stadium for a match held among unprecedented security.

In the first half a Lee Eul-Yong penalty in the 39th minute was saved spectacularly by USA keeper Brad Friedel. The Blackburn Rovers player made a string of other good saves and was adjuged man of the match.

“For the goal, the ball dropped between players and I did not have a chance,” said Friedel. “We had been practicing defending crosses like that all week but we could not prevent that one. They put us under a lot of pressure in the second half and it is very difficult to withstand that.

“If you had said ‘here are four points after two games’ before the tournament we would have taken them. It is all to play for in our match against Poland.”

World Cup organizers feared the Group D collision might prompt a mass display of anti-U.S. sentiment but nothing materialized.

Ahn celebrated his goal by taking a speed skating posture – an apparent reference to the controversy at this year’s Winter Olympics when a Korean skater was denied a gold medal in favor of an American rival.

The result leaves both the United States and South Korea level on four points at the top of Group D after two matches. Poland and Portugal play later Monday.

Korea’s Dutch coach Guus Hiddink was disappointed his side could not take all three points with a difficult final match against Portugal to come.

“I think we deserved to win maybe 3-1 or 4-1,” Hiddink said. “Maybe a draw is too little or not enough, but it’s a tournament so we have to accept it.

“But I’m happy with the way the players performed. They were always going to attack. The improvement and effort they have made in the last four months is tremendous.

“The side is competing well, controlling the game and dominating recognized sides. Chapeau (hats off) to the Koreans.”

American coach Bruce Arena was delighted his side came away with a point, acknowledging the hostile atmosphere.

“It was a big day for the people of Korea and playing under these conditions in front of 60,000 of their fans it was a good result,” Arena said. “We will take the point and get out of town fast.”

Earlier it had looked as if Friedel would see the Americans home to victory, with his shot-stopping heroics.

Swiss official Urs Meier had pointed to the spot in the 39th minute after the USA’s veteran defender Jeff Agoos was adjudged to have shoved South Korea’s veteran striker Hwang Sun-Hong in the box.

Lee stepped up to take the penalty and keeper Friedel guessed correctly, diving to his right to beat out the shot before Kim Nam-Il missed a follow up.

Mathis’ goal came after the United States had soaked up some early pressure to catch the home defense napping.

A long ball from midfield found Mathis in acres of space on the edge of the penalty area, the mohican-cropped striker taking one touch before ramming an unstoppable finish past Lee Woon-Jae.

South Korea had squandered a gilt-edged chance to take the lead over only five minutes.

A perfect cross to the back post from Hwang found an unmarked Seol Ki Hyeon. But with the goal at his mercy Seol smashed a close-range volley over the bar, to the disbelief of his teammates.

Kim Nam-Il was the first to seriously test Friedel, lofting a long-range shot which the back-pedalling US shot-stopper gathered on nine minutes.

Seol went close again near the 20-minute mark, latching on to a long ball over the top from Yoo Sang-Chul but seeing his angled shot blocked as Friedel thrust out a leg.

It was a similar tale after half-time, South Korea sweeping forward in search of an equalizer only to be thwarted by a resolute American defense — and Friedel.

The second half was barely a minute old before when Friedel came to the rescue for the U.S. again, pulling off another marvelous save from a shot by Seol as another Korean chance went begging.