CUIABA, June 18- Alexander Kerzhakov rescued Russia in their first World Cup finals match since 2002, scoring three minutes after coming on as substitute to salvage a 1-1 draw against South Korea on Tuesday.
The Zenit St Petersburg striker was brought on after rival substitute Lee Keun-Ho put South Korea ahead with a 30 metre shot that Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev disastrously parried over his head into the net.
The result left both countries trailing Belgium who head the Group H table after beating Algeria 2-1 earlier.
Russia, who host the 2018 finals, were looking to make an impact in their landmark return. They owed their saved honour to Kerzhakov who scored his 26th international goal.
“The reaction of the players was really good,” said Russian coach Fabio Capello when asked about the Korean goal. “That was important to me,” added the Korean.
The last two countries to make their appearance in Brazil 2014 slowly cranked up the tempo in 77 percent humidity under the Arena Pantanal’s floodlights.
The Koreans began brightly enough, with Bayer Leverkusen’s Son Heung-Min testing Akinfeev early, his right-footed shot going high.
Seconds later the midfielder was booked unfairly by Argentine referee Nestor Pitana.
Playing all in white to Russia’s maroon and watched by a near-full stadium where the prominent colour was Brazilian yellow, the Taeguk Warriors showed technical ability without ever threatening to score.
The largely local crowd began to vent their frustration at what they perceived to be the lack of spectacle served up for their evening entertainment.
A half-hearted Mexican wave — never a good sign especially in the first half hour of a match — crept its way round the stands, as Sergei Ignashevich struck a 30 metre freekick straight into Korean keeper Jung Sung-Yong’s hands.
Korean captain Koo Ja-Cheol livened things up with a low left-footed effort.
Then Son, who found the net 11 times for Leverkusen last season, had a real chance in front of goal but his shot sailed exuberantly over Akinfeev’s crossbar.
The Koreans had the upper hand as the tepid first half drew to a close, their midfield putting together some neat moves, with Han Kook-Young and Sunderland’s Ki Sung-Yeung proving a handful.
The teams emerged for the second period with this World Cup’s second goalless draw within 24 hours only 45 minutes away. If Russia were to give coach Fabio Capello something to celebrate on his 68th birthday at midnight, they’d have to up their game.
And they came out fighting with two quick chances from Victor Fayzulin and skipper Vasily Berezutski.
Down at the other end, Akinfeev did well to deny Koo’s potent drive.
In a bid to shake things up Korean coach Hong Myung-Bo, captain of the side that finished fourth at the 2002 World Cup, introduced prolific striker Lee for Park, and it proved a useful switch.
On 68 minutes, Lee broke the deadlock in style, charging towards the Russian box, rounding a defender to shoot right-footed. Akinfeev looked devastated after at first seeming to halt the ball but then watching in horror as it went over his head.
Russia pulled back level when Kerzhakov, after coming on for Yury Zhirkov, pounced on the ball after a goalmouth scramble to shoot from close range.