Muscat: A goal from forward Nasouh Nkd Hle stunned DPR Korea to give Syria victory in a closely-fought Group B contest in the AFC U-22 Championship at Seeb Stadium on Monday.
The Syria striker swooped on a loose ball 10 minutes into the second half to give his side the breakthrough following an error from DPR Korea goalkeeper An Tae-song.
And although DPR Korea pressed forward in an attempt to level the tie, they struggled to break through the packed ranks of the Syrian midfield who comfortably protected their lead for three priceless points.
The win saw Syria extended their unbeaten start to the campaign following Saturday’s draw 1-1 with the United Arab Emirates, while DPR Korea were unable to build on the weekend’s 3-1 win over Yemen ahead of the final round of group stage fixtures on Wednesday.
“It was a good win against a strong team and three points are very important for us to advance to the next round,” said Syria coach Ahmad Al Shaar.
“We targeted certain areas of the DPR Korea team after studying the performance against Yemen, we thought that their defenders were quite slow, and also controlled the centre of midfield which was very important.”
DPR Korea, hoping to catch Syria off-guard from the start as they had Yemen in their previous game, attacked quickly within the opening minutes.
Pak Kwang-ryong, with his head still swathed in bandages from Saturday’s fixture, played in strike-partner Jo Kwang for a well-struck shot that was smartly blocked by goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma at his near post.
Syria did not buckle under the early spell pressure, however, and began to play their way back into the game as Omar Kharbin was just inches from connecting with a right wing cross from central midfielder Hamid Mido.
And it was Mido who was next to try his luck on the 14th minute with a venomous shot that stung the fingertips of an alert An in the DPR Korea goal.
DPR Korea tried to restore a foothold in the contest and midway through the first half the dangerous Jo forced Alma into an unorthodox save, blocking the forward’s low shot with his legs.
Mido, who was central to the majority of Syria’s good work in the first half, then had a pair of chances to open the scoring. First an attempted chip that beat the DPR Korea custodian but could only nestle on top of the goal’s netting, and then an effort blazed over the crossbar from just outside the penalty area after good work by the marauding left-back Mouaiad Al Ajjan.
Despite the extended spells of Syrian possession, DPR Korea always looked a threat on the break and on the half hour mark midfielder So Kyong-jin flashed a shot over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area after Sim Hyon-jin’s free-kick was only half-cleared.
In the final opening of the first period, Osama Omari fizzed in a shot from distance but An was equal to it, parrying the ball away from goal.
Scoreless at half-time, the evenly-matched sides came out after the re-start in much the same vein with both looking to wrest control of the midfield.
But on the 57th minute disaster struck for DPR Korea and the deadlock was broken as an innocuous seeming cross-cum-shot from Al Ajjan caught An completely flat-footed, and although the back-pedaling goalkeeper desperately palmed the ball off his line, it only went as far as the head of the onrushing Nkd Hle.
DPR Korea struggled to restore parity with Syria not content to sit on their lead as the young Qasioun Eagles pressed forward at will, particularly in the form of Al Ajjan who continually tormented substitute right-back Ryu Kwang-ho throughout the second half.
And with 15 minutes remaining Syria came close to increasing their advantage in spectacular fashion as an audacious overhead kick by Mido from Al Mawas’s in-swinging corner sent the ball flying towards An’s bottom left-hand corner, until the diving goalkeeper intervened to tip the effort round the post, partly making amends for his earlier error.
The athletic piece of skill by Mido was to be the final effort on goal for either side as Syria closed ranks and saw out the game to its conclusion despite the best efforts of DPR Korea.
“The team from Syria is physically very strong and powerful, but I was not disappointed by my team who kept their spirit despite losing a goal,” said DPR Korea coach Yun Jong-su.
“We will have another chance in the next game.”