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Heartache for Saudi Arabia as late equalizer and penalty shootout dash Asian Cup dreams

DOHA: After 120 minutes of intense football action ended in a 1-1 draw, Saudi Arabia’s Asian Cup campaign came to end in heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday with a 4-2 penalty shootout defeat at the hands of South Korea.

In was a night of what might have been, the game came to life very early in the second half and then again very late. For a long time in between, it looked as though Abdullah Radif had come off the bench as a half-time substitute to win the game for the Saudis just 34 seconds after the restart.

But as the clock ticked down, fellow substitute Cho Gue-song equalized in the ninth minute of stoppage time.

With no goals during extra time, the game went all the way to the shootout. Saudi efforts from Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Ghareeb were saved by Jo Hyun-woo, while all of the Koreans who stepped up put theirs in the net.

The reward for the Koreans is a quarter-final clash with Australia on Friday, and it might take them a while to recover from today’s game, though it started relatively quietly. The fans had to make their own entertainment during an extremely tight opening period as both teams cautiously felt each other out.

The Saudis had plenty of possession but could not find a way through and, apart from a wild and high shot from Abdullah Al-Khaibari after 13 minutes that barely qualified as an attempt on goal, there was little action of note in the first 25 minutes or so.

Five minutes before the break, the crowd at the Education City Stadium in Doha was left to wonder how Saudi Arabia were not ahead. It all began with a corner that swung into the six-yard box and caused chaos. Saleh Al-Shehri greeted it with a header at the near post that came off the bar, then Ali Lajami did the same with the same result, and finally Salem Al-Dawsari attempted a third header, only center-back Kim Min-jae to divert the ball wide.

This disappointment was forgotten just seconds after the break when Radif, who replaced Al-Shehri, broke the deadlock. Mohammed Al-Breik’s pass from deep was touched on beautifully by Al-Dawsari and Radif was waiting to coolly slot the ball past Jo.

The Saudis, now full of confidence, continued to have the upper hand while Korea continued to create little. On the hour mark, an Al-Khaibari shot through a crowded penalty area went straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. Midway through the second half, Radif shot from a similar position but his effort went wide not only of the keeper’s right hand but also the post. The 20-year-old remained a goal threat and only a sliding tackle from the goalkeeper denied him a second goal with 11 minutes remaining.

It was always likely that the Koreans would pile on the pressure as time began to run out and that was certainly the case during a frantic final period.

Goalkeeper Ahmed Al-Kassar showed his worth when he denied what was by far Korea’s best chance of the game at that point, as he got down well to save a shot from Hwang In-beom, before keeping out a header from Seol Young-woo. In between, Lajami was in place to make some important last-ditch blocks.

As the game moved into stoppage time, a Cho header from close range hit the bar. Then, just 90 seconds from the end, he found the target with another header as the Saudis paid the price for sitting too deep.

Only one team looked likely to win during the 30 minutes of extra time and it was not the men in green, as an energized Korean side pushed forward in search of what would surely have been the winner.

Meanwhile, the Saudis seemed content to settle for a shootout. They had more heroics from Al-Kassar to thank for even getting that far, though in the last few seconds Radif did force a fine save from Jo.

That was the last action before the sudden death showdown. Mohammed Kanno scored the Saudis’ first penalty and Saud Abdulhamid the second, but then Jo saved efforts by Al-Najei and Ghareeb. By the time Hwang Hee-chan netted the winner, head coach Roberto Mancini had already departed from the touchline.

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