So after 30 games, 257 shots on target, 178 saves and 77 goals, we’re down to one final meaningful game in the AFC Asian Cup — Australia against South Korea (live on One World Sports and DishWorld at 4am ET/1am PT on Saturday).
South Korea, aka the Taeguk Warriors, have progressed through to the final without having conceding a goal whilst the Socceroos have powered through playing an energetic, intense brand of soccer.
From a South Korean perspective, reaching the final is somewhat of a surprise given the state of the national team after last year’s World Cup debacle. For that achievement, immense credit must go to Uli Stielike whose understated yet demanding approach appears to have coaxed the best out of his squad. He never got carried away with any one victory, pointing out areas for improvements whilst highlighting the strengths of his outfit.
Over in the Australian camp, Ange Postecoglou has prepared his troops well, identifying the key strengths of his personnel and setting up a system to maximize the home team’s effectiveness. Their all-action approach has seen the Aussies overwhelm their opponents with one notable exception, the South Koreans.
Programming note: For viewers in the United States, the tournament is being shown exclusively on One World Sports and DishWorld. Even if you don’t have a TV subscription to One World Sports, you can access the channel via online streaming service DishWorld for $10/month. Sign up for DishWorld via their website.
South Korea’s path to the final:
Drawn in Group A with Australia, the Taeguk Warriors started the tournament off relatively slowly and in rather unconvincing fashion. Though three 1-0 score lines suggests a relatively serene passage through to the knockouts, the reality has been anything but. They were lackluster in their opening match against Oman, could have conceivably lost against a spirited Kuwaiti team and though they beat Australia in their last Group A encounter, Stielike’s side did present Australia with some clear cut opportunities to score.
Throughout the group phase, Stielike was searching for the right blend, chopping and changing his starting eleven trying to find an element of fluency that would stabilize his team. In mitigation, Stielike has had to contend with the loss to injury of Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol.
The quarters saw South Korea escape against Uzbekistan as the latter wasted two gilt-edged opportunities to score and potentially knock the former out. However, South Korea did demonstrate their staying power and managed to grind out a 2-0 win courtesy of a brace from Son Heung-min. Stielike’s intelligent substitutions exploited the tiring Uzbeks and it was no surprise that the relatively fresh Cha Du-ri, who came on in the 70th minute, was able to power past the Uzbekistani backline to set-up Son for South Korea’s second.
Perhaps their most convincing performance came in the semis against an understandably drained Iraqi team. Younis Mahmood did threaten to cause some problems for the South Korean backline at points but overall this was a relatively comfortable victory with the game effectively wrapped up in the 50th minute.
They’ve had their fair share of luck reaching the final but maybe the Taeguk Warriors deserve a bit of good fortune given their battling performances. If they can keep one more clean sheet, then the odds are they will win their first AFC Asian Cup in 55 years.
Australia’s path to the final:
The Australians have reveled in their role as hosts, and have taken the game to their opponents right from the off. Their first two Group A encounters saw them score eight goals before they came unstuck against South Korea.
Ange Postecoglou did rest a few key players against the South Koreans but it was an eye-opening result because it did teach him that sheer force and intensity isn’t always enough. If anything, it served as a wake-up call and reminder of the dangers the Socceroos face if they don’t concentrate for the full game.
In the knockout phase, the Socceroos overpowered an impressive Chinese side but were dependent on a Tim Cahill brace to see them through to the semis. The New York Red Bulls man is so important to the Australians because of his goal threat and all round inspirational qualities. Despite the Aussie goal rush, there was always the lingering question as to who would step up if Cahill couldn’t find the back of the net.
The semifinal against the United Arab Emirates saw the Socceroos share the goal burden about with defenders Trent Sainsbury and Jason Davidson striking in the opening quarter of an hour. After the goals though, it appeared as if the Socceroos suffered a little stage fright as the UAE gained a foothold in the contest. It was almost as if it dawned on the men wearing Aussie gold that they were on the brink of reaching the final on their home soil.
If the UAE had scored, it would have made for an interesting contest but that wasn’t the case and Australia progressed through to their second AFC Asian Cup final in a row.
For South Korea, a lot will depend on Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng who has been one of the outstanding players in the AFC Asian Cup. Calm on the ball, defensively disciplined as well as being an attacking threat, Ki possesses the skill and guile to fashion chances and dictate the tempo of a game.
A lot of responsibility will rest on the shoulders of goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon. Neither Kim nor his counterpart Kim Seung-gyu have looked terribly convincing throughout the Asian Cup. Jin will need to be on top form for the final. If the Australians detect even a hint of vulnerability, then they will target him mercilessly.
Lee Jeong-hyeop may not one of the bigger names in the South Korean outfit but he’s valued by Uli Stielike because of his hard work. The striker, who has two goals in the tournament, will be tasked to press and harry upfront which in turn will create space for the likes of Son Heung-min and Nam Tae-hee. It’s doubtful that Australia will take him lightly as Lee was the man who scored the winner against them in the group game.
It’s hard to talk about Australia without mentioning Tim Cahill. He is Australia’s talisman. It was Cahill who dragged his shell shocked team back into the contest in the opening match against Kuwait when the visitors had the temerity to take the lead in the eighth minute not to mention his quarterfinal winning brace against China. At 35, Cahill has clocked a few miles but he has been managed well by Postecoglou. Expect Cahill to be in peak condition for the final competing from the first whistle to the last.
Mile Jedinak hasn’t had a sparkling tournament. The Crystal Palace star’s competition has been blighted with an ankle injury and that has prevented him from playing to his full ability. Jedinak will need to be at his peak as to quell any potential South Korean threat. Jedinak will have his hands full especially if Son Heung-min is on song.
Mathew Leckie has been enjoying the freedom to attack swapping between the left and right flank and generally creating havoc where ever he has roamed. What’s missing from his tournament so far is a goal. The final would be a perfect match to break his duck. Moreover he will be required defensively providing cover for Jason Davidson or Ivan Franjic on the left and right flanks. The South Koreans have talent and explosive pace in the wide areas so Leckie will need to temper his attacking instincts and prevent his fullback from getting into a one on one situation.
Things to look for:
The Australians are more than happy to take a pro-active approach to the game. They may temper their attacking instinct but they will take the game to the South Koreans playing fast, aggressive soccer.
That approach may work to the South Korean’s favour as they have the guile and the pace to pick off the Australians on the counter attack. The Taeguk Warriors will not be bullied by the aggression of the Australians and can match them physically if need be.
The flanks could be the area where this game could be won and lost. Both sides pose threats in the wide areas. Australia will be looking to provide service to Tim Cahill who is phenomenal in the air whilst the South Koreans have pace to burn in the wide areas.
It’ll be interesting to see how Stielike uses the rapid Cha Du-ri. If the German believes that the match could turn into an open, frenetic, end-to-end affair then he could hold the jet-heeled Cha on the bench and bring him on with half an hour to go to take advantage of any tiring legs.
The first goal will be hugely important. If South Korea strike first they have shown throughout the tournament that they are capable of holding on to a lead. It begs the question, do Australia have a plan B if their initial game plan is negated. If the Socceroos score then the onus would be on the Taeguk Warriors to commit more men forward playing right into the hands of the attacking trio of Cahill, Leckie and Robbie Kruse.
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