South Korea gave coach Uli Stielike the perfect birthday gift with a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan on Tuesday that breathed new life into their World Cup qualifying campaign.
The victory lifted South Korea above the Uzbeks into second spot in Group A at the midway point of Asia’s final qualifying round, level on 10 points with Iran, who play Syria later on Tuesday.
The top two sides in Group A and B qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia while the third-placed teams meet to decide who goes into a CONCACAF-Asian Zone playoff for a place at the finals.
The Koreans have looked a shadow of the side that reached last year’s Asian Cup final and went in at halftime trailing 1-0 after Marat Bikmaev pounced on goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu’s poor clearance to curl the ball into an empty net from 25 metres.
The hosts had dominated possession in the opening 45 minutes without looking remotely dangerous but showed greater urgency after the break and equalised in the 67th minute.
Defender Park Joo-ho dashed down to the line and his looping cross arced to the far post where Nam Tae-hee crashed home a header.
Stielike, celebrating his 62nd birthday, sent on towering target man Kim Shin-wook and defender Hong Chul and the substitutes combined to set up the winner.
Hong crossed deep from the left, Kim held off a defender to nod the ball back across goal and Koo Ja-cheol raced in behind the defence to slam home five minutes from time.
After losing 1-0 to Iran in their last qualifier, Stielike was delighted his side had managed to break down the stingy Uzbek defence, which had conceded just two goals over their last seven matches.
“We knew how difficult this game would be before we started,” the German told reporters. “I’m satisfied with how the players turned it around .. We deserved the victory.”
South Korea face a trip to China when World Cup qualifying resumes in March while Uzbekistan play Syria.