South Korea ended a 27-year wait to reach the Asian Cup final once again after beating Iraq 2-0 in the semifinal played at Sydney’s Stadium Australia. Goals from Lee Jeong-Hyeop and and Kim Young-gwon meant that Uli Stielike’s men were the deserved winners after putting in a good shift. The Iraqis failed to pose any real threat despite dominating possession during the second half.
Playing on a rather wet night in front of over 36,000 fans, it was South Korea who started brightly, with a couple of chances early on. A cross into the box by captain Ki Sung-yeung was almost glanced in by Han Kyo-won but it missed him by inches. The Koreans then tried a few long rangers, to no effect. Nam Tae Hee’s effort, from around 35 yards out went high and over the bar.
The Iraqis were almost overwhelmed by the Korean domination before attempting an attack of their own in the 18th minute. Younis Mahmoud led an Iraqi counterattack but unfortunately for them, the Koreans regained possession and the quick turnover culminated in a stinging shot from Son Heung-min that Jalal Hassan tipped over the bar.
Two minutes later, South Korea took the lead. Left-back Kim Jin-su sent in a wonderful free-kick from the right and Lee Jeong-hyeop was on hand to head in the opener. The marking was poor and Iraq’s vulnerability to aerial balls, something which many pundits mentioned prior to the game, came to the fore.
The goal, however, did spark Iraq to life. In the final quarter of the first half, they pushed hard to find an equalizer but to no avail. Tame headers from Abdul-Zahra and Mahmoud were easily gathered while Ahmed Yasin tried a shot from distance only to see the ball sail over into the stands. The Koreans were undoubtedly shaky but managed to keep Iraq out going into halftime.
Iraq had a golden opportunity to score the equalizer just after halftime when Korean keeper Kim Jin-hyeon rushed out of his area but they failed to capitalize. The Iraqis were made to pay a couple of minutes later when Korea scored again.
Iraqi coach Radhi Shneishel said post-match that he had planned for a 0-0 scoreline at halftime but the opening goal had spoiled it. If the first goal had spoiled their plans, the second almost put the game beyond doubt. The Iraqi defence watched as Lee Jeong-hyeop chested down a high ball and Kim Young-gwon’s first time shot took a slight deflection of a defender and went in.
The Iraqis had more than half an hour to get back in the game but it was always going to be a hard task against a team that had an extra day’s rest. Mahmoud and Co. kept the ball for most of the remaining time, but couldn’t break down a Korean defence that hasn’t conceded a single goal in this tournament.
Ali Adnan, Mahdi Kamil and Marwan Hussein all came on for Iraq to try and make a difference as Shneishel plotted an improbable comeback. All that happened though was Korea pouncing on the ball and launching quick counterattacks as Iraq pushed higher. Iraqi keeper Hassan was tested twice from distance and was fortunate not to concede. There was a flurry of Iraqi attacks in the final few minutes and Korea had to be alert, such as when Kim Jin-su put in a last-ditch challenge to deny Hussein. In the end, the Koreans kept yet another clean sheet and now proceed to the final while Iraq will play the rather unwanted third-place playoff.
It was a game in which Son Heung-min sparkled, Lee Jeong-hyeop got a goal and an assist and Nam Tae Hee somehow won the man-of-the-match award. But for many observers, Korea’s best performer was Kim Jin-su. The 22-year old Hoffenheim left back may have missed the World Cup due to an injury but he has been outstanding throughout his team’s stay in Australia. Tonight, he was a livewire on the wings. His delivery for the first goal was perfect while his last-ditch tackle helped kill Iraqi hopes of getting back into the game.
On a night when his country needed him to step up, the Iraqi captain disappointed. Starting up front in a 4-2-3-1, Younis was expected to lead the attack but he simply couldn’t make a breakthrough. Apart from some wayward shots, he did not threaten. Instead, he made his mark through an altercation, falling over too easily and getting caught offside a couple of times. Of course, he worked hard but had nothing to show for it in the end.
One step away from a first Asian Cup triumph since 1960, South Korea have now mastered the knack of grinding out results in an effective but not-so-neat manner. Although their defending tonight was shaky and questionable at times, overall, the team was a tough nut to crack. Steilike’s men maintain a 100% record and haven’t conceded a goal so far.
There will be many who point to the after-effects of that quarterfinal thriller against Iran and they may be right. The Iraqis seemed to have not fully recovered from Friday’s game. Still under the cloud of the Abdul-Zahra doping issue, they created very few chances and even then, they were woeful in finishing them off.
The Taeguk Warriors were deserved winners on a night when they faced little trouble from their opponents. The Koreans were fresh and alert, while the Iraqis seemed drained and unprepared. The two goals were well-taken although a little effort from the Iraqi defence could have cancelled them out. The Korean defence, despite keeping a clean sheet, also seemed a bit unsteady at times and may have conceded had it been a stronger opponent. Korea coach Uli Steilike will now have to fix those issues, regardless of who they will face in the final.