By Zhang Rongfeng
BANGKOK, Jan. 10 (Xinhua) -- South Korea registered a 1-0 victory over China thanks to a last gasp winner from Lee Dong-jun at Tinsulanon Stadium on Thursday in their opening AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand, which also serves as the Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualifier.
The South Koreans looked destined to be held by a determined Chinese outfit, but a goal from substitute Lee in the third minute of stoppage time ensured Kim Hak-bum's side finished the opening matchday of Group C top of the table.
While South Korea entered the tournament having never fallen short of the AFC U-23 Championship's final four, China are still chasing their first knockout stage appearance.
Towering striker Oh Se-hun's close header provided an early warning, and China's impressive goalkeeper Chen Wei was forced into two strong saves. But while both Lee Dong-gyeong and Um Won-sang posed a constant threat to the Chinese defense, none of South Korea's eight first half shots on goal produced the breakthrough they were looking for.
Though China found themselves defending for much of the competition, they proved efficient when they had the ball, despite losing their attacking focal point Zhang Yuning to a first half injury.
Duan Liuyu twice broke through the defence to force necessary saves from Song Bum-Keun, before the Jeonbuk Motors goalkeeper was compelled into a more difficult stop in the early stages of the second half by Yang Liuyu.
South Korean substitute Kim Jin-gyu almost broke the deadlock in bizarre fashion when a looping header he appeared to know little about forced Chen into a fingertip save just after the hour mark, but the chances were by then coming relatively slowly for Kim Hak-bum's side, who found less attacking joy the longer the game went on.
Just as a draw looked inevitable, Lee latched onto a long pass and stroked the ball beyond Chen for the lone goal of the game.
Chinese coach Hao Wei contributed the disappointing defeat to experience. "The contest should have ended with a draw, but our players' lack of experience allowed the goal in the last minute," said Hao. "It's a pitiful loss, but in general, I can accept my team's performance." China produced a total of 13 shots with five on target.
In the other match-up in Group C, Iran managed a 1-1 draw with defending champions Uzbekistan.
With three points secured, South Korea are set for another tough challenge when they face Hamid Estili's Iran on Sunday, while China have an encounter with Uzbekistan, with both matches to be held at Tinsulanon Stadium.
The top two teams from each of the four groups will advance to the knockout stage and the top three teams of the tournament can book their tickets to the Tokyo Olympics with Japan, the hosts, having an automatic qualification.