SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea squandered a chance to book their spot at next year’s World Cup finals on Thursday after a 0-0 draw with 10-man Iran left their qualification hopes precariously balanced.
With Uzbekistan losing 1-0 in China, the Koreans would have sealed Group A’s second automatic berth for Russia but could find no way past an impregnable Iran, who have not conceded a goal in 12 straight World Cup qualifiers dating back to November 2015.
Korea’s Jang Hyun-soo came closest to breaking the deadlock in the 19th minute at a heaving Seoul World Cup Stadium when his glancing header from inside the six-yard box dropped inches wide of goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand’s left-hand post.
While Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-yueng was not judged fit enough to play, Korea’s talismanic wide man Son Heung-min, who fractured his forearm in June, was in the line-up, although he was given little time or space by Iran’s defense.
Iran, who have already qualified as group winners, were happy to cede possession to the home side and invited pressure, hoping to punish Korea on the counter-attack.
The game took a nasty turn in the 50th minute when Iran’s Saeid Ezatolahi was shown a red card for stamping on the head of Korean defender Kim Min-jae.
With the man advantage and some 60,000 fans roaring them on, the Koreans threw men forward in search of the winner but Iran held firm until the final whistle.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said the match was a “beautiful football fight” and praised his players for digging in after being reduced to 10 men.
Queiroz, who has guided Iran to back-to-back World Cup finals, added that he had been impressed with the Koreans and had even asked for Son’s shirt.
Shin Tae-yong, who was taking charge of Korea for the first time since replacing the fired Uli Stielike in July, was confident his side would still take second place.
“I thought it would be difficult for us tonight if we if we lost the first goal, so we played carefully rather than aggressively,” Shin told reporters. “I think that strategy worked ok.
“We had prepared for this game with no other thought than to win, so we’ll do the same for Uzbekistan.”
The result leaves Korea in second place on 14 points behind Iran, with Syria and Uzbekistan tied for third on 12.
The Koreans travel to Tashkent to play Uzbekistan in their final qualifier on Tuesday with a victory for either side likely to earn the second spot.
Syria must beat Iran in Tehran to have any chance of the automatic berth.
The third-placed teams in each of the two Asia groups play each other in a two-legged playoff in October with the aggregate winner facing the fourth-placed team from the Central and North America (CONCACAF) qualifying in November.
Writing by Peter Rutherford; Editing by Nick Mulvenney, Neville Dalton