ABU DHABI: Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino will be like a nervous parent for the next two weeks as Son Heung-min tries to help South Korea end 59 years of Asian Cup hurt.
The mercurial Tottenham forward, who played in the London club’s defeat by Manchester United three days earlier, had a hand in both goals as the Koreans beat China 2-0 on Wednesday to reach the last 16 as Group C winners.
But Pochettino will be more concerned that Son not only started the game in Abu Dhabi, but completed 87 minutes — long enough for China’s rugged defenders to leave their mark on South Korea’s talismanic captain.
“Of course I didn’t expect to play for so long,” Son told AFP.
“I’m a bit tired, but that’s normal. It was my dream to play football when I was a kid and still it’s my dream. I love to play for my country.”
The 26-year-old has just come off a punishing run of fixtures with Spurs, playing in 13 matches since the beginning of December.
But there were few signs of fatigue against China, as Son won the first-half penalty converted by Hwang Ui-jo and whipped in the corner for Kim Min-jae to head home just after the break.
“I think we deserved to win the game,” said Son.
“We dominated from the start to the end. It was my first game this tournament — clean sheet, 2-0, it’s a happy afternoon.”
Over the past year, Son has played for his country at the World Cup in Russia and the Asian Games in Jakarta, where he led them to gold, earning him an exemption from South Korea’s military service.
“It’s an honour to wear this red shirt and play for the national team,” he said.
“Not everyone gets the chance, and if it’s possible I try my best on the pitch always.”
South Korea, who have failed to win the Asian Cup since 1960, beat the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan 1-0 in their opening two matches in the United Arab Emirates.
But the addition of Son has energised the 2015 runners-up, who suddenly look a very different proposition.
It will not have done Pochettino’s blood pressure any good, however, to see some of the industrial tackles dished out on his Korean star.
Son went down clutching his ankle after a particularly meaty challenge late on, which earned tattooed China defender Zhang Linpeng a yellow card.
Title-chasing Spurs can ill afford another injury blow, having just lost England striker Harry Kane until March with ankle ligament damage.
“I feel OK,” insisted Son, a huge celebrity in his native country. “We have five or six days before the next game, so I can rest enough.”
South Korea, who famously reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, are joint favourites with Iran to win Asian football’s most coveted prize.
“We’re hoping for bigger things,” said Son. “But we don’t talk about winning the tournament. There’s a long way to go, and we know it will be difficult.”