South Korea stormed into the Asian Cup final with a clinical 2-0 victory over Iraq on Monday, avenging a painful defeat at the same stage eight years ago.
Goals from Lee Jeong-Hyeop and Kim Young-Gwon did the job for the Koreans, who dominated a wet semi-final in Sydney to move a step closer to ending a title drought dating all the way back to 1960.
They face either hosts Australia or the United Arab Emirates in the final on January 31.
There was no repeat of Iraq’s shock win over South Korea in 2007, when they won a dramatic penalty shoot-out before completing their fairytale run by beating Saudi Arabia to lift the trophy in Jakarta.
South Korea, still to concede in their five matches, simply overpowered the Iraqis, Lee climbing to glance in a free kick from Kim Jin-Su after 20 minutes.
Golden boy Son Heung-Min had already forced goalkeeper Jalal Hassan into a smart save with a long-distance rocket before Lee – a surprise Asian Cup call-up by coach Uli Stielike – netted his second goal of the tournament.
Lee, who scored in the 1-0 win over Australia in the group stages, turned provider five minutes after the break, chesting down a high ball for Kim to smash home from the edge of the box.
Skipper Ki Sung-Yueng stung Hassan’s gloves with another howitzer from long range as South Korea continued to swarm forward, the mercurial Son proving a different class as he ghosted effortlessly past Iraq’s bedraggled players.
Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishil, looking forlorn in a plastic poncho, barked out orders to his troops, but there was little left in the tank after battling fierce rivals Iran to a standstill in the quarter-finals.
Iraq, who prevailed 7-6 on penalties after a helter-skelter 3-3 draw, rarely threatened despite the threat posed by 2007 hero Younis Mahmoud, and the final whistle triggered wild celebrations among the massed ranks of Korean fans in the crowd of 36,000.
NEWCASTLE, Australia — Mahdi Ali believes his UAE side have what it takes to upset hosts Australia and head into the Asian Cup final, with The Whites coach insisting star man Omar Abdulrahman is fit to lead their charge.
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With the semi-final coming just four days after eliminating Japan on penalties after a gruelling extra-time period, there have been fears that the UAE would struggle physically against the Socceroos.
Ali, however, insists his players have fully recovered, and will take the game to Australia.
“After playing 120 minutes against Japan, it was a strong game,” said Ali. “For us this is also a very important game and we are very well prepared.
“We planned to come to this for a long time and we are very happy to qualify for the semi-final and we will work very hard to achieve our goal next match, Insha’Allah.”
Confirming there are no injury concerns within the squad, despite rumours that playmaker Abdulrahman limped into training in Newcastle on Sunday, defender Mohamed Ahmed echoed the sentiments of his coach.
“After playing the game against Japan and winning, there is a lot of motivation and spirit in the team,” Ahmed explained.
“Of course, we are very optimistic for this game and we hope for a good result as well as playing good football. We will play with our own character and identity.
“We have had three days [rest], so we have made our recovery for this game and I think this will give us more courage to do our best because we’ve worked very hard to reach this level, and we have to work even harder for our next game.”
Having not reached a continental final since hosting the tournament in 1996, the stakes are high for UAE. Though only two players in the national team squad are over the age of 30, Ali is confident his youthful side can create a piece of history.
Indeed, the former Al Ahli midfielder moved to take all pressure off his players, claiming they have already attained their goal of a top-four finish. The semi-final will therefore see the UAE play with equal parts freedom and tenacity.
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“Two years ago we announced that our goal was to reach the semi-final. So the first goal is already achieved and we are happy about this.
“Now comes the second part, where we aim to reach the final, we worked very hard to reach this level and we will not let it go easily,” Ali stated.
In the visitors’ favour, of course, is the knowledge that they held Australia to a 0-0 draw in a friendly in Abu Dhabi last October. The only other match between the nations also ended scoreless in 2011.
Socceroos manager Ange Postecoglou is expected to boost his strike force as a result, with the attack-minded James Troisi widely tipped to play a role in midfield, while Mathew Spiranovic should slot back into the defence after missing the quarter-final win over China through suspension.
South Korea will be praying lightning does not strike twice when they face Iraq in the Asian Cup semi-finals today, having limped to the last four battered and bruised.
The Koreans have failed to win Asia’s showcase tournament since 1960 – a curious anomaly for a country with a proud footballing pedigree and who famously reached the last four of the World Cup in 2002.
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But as coach Uli Stielike tries to rouse his injury-hit squad for the clash, memories of Iraq’s fairytale run to the 2007 Asian Cup title still haunt the Red Devils.
South Korea were stunned on penalties in the semi-finals by Iraq, who went on to beat Saudi Arabia in the final in Jakarta, talisman Younis Mahmoud heading the winner to bring a small measure of comfort to the war-torn country.
Stielike has been busy patching up his walking wounded and will be hoping South Korea’s golden boy Son Heung-Min can repeat his midweek heroics, when he struck twice in extra time in the 2-0 quarter-final win over Uzbekistan.
The mercurial forward, dubbed “Sonaldo” by his team-mates at German club Bayer Leverkusen, produced a superhuman display, despite not having fully recovered from a flu bug, and left the pitch on a stretcher.
Stielike’s wish that Iraq and Iran also battle each other to a standstill came true as the bitter rivals tore furiously into each other in an ill-tempered game in Canberra, Iraq prevailing 7-6 on penalties after a helter-skelter 3-3 draw.
With injuries ending the involvement of winger and midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, and Son struggling for fitness, Stielike has been monitoring daily medical reports but insisted his players were ready to go.
Australia v UAE
Australia have turned up the heat on the UAE before Tuesday’s Asian Cup semi-final, warning the Gulf side that they would “choke them until they’re blue”.
The path to a first Asian Cup title has opened up invitingly for Australia after the UAE stunned holders Japan on penalties in the last eight, and defender Trent Sainsbury predicted that the hosts will overpower the Emirates.
“I don’t think the UAE has got the legs to go with us for 90 minutes,” Sainsbury said on Sunday.
“It’s just going to be quick ball movement, player movement. And as soon as we lose the ball, try and win it back – try and choke them until they’re blue. You have got to go for it in this game. You can’t hold back.”
Australia, beaten by Japan in the 2011 final, have had an extra day’s rest after their 2-0 win over China in the quarter-finals.
Sainsbury twisted the knife, questioning the work ethic of UAE star Omar Abdulrahman. The shaggy-haired playmaker has been one of the players of the tournament so far, instrumental in the UAE’s victory over Japan, his cheeky dinked ‘panenka’ penalty underlining his outrageous talent.
“Very tidy on the ball, not the hardest worker and I think we can exploit that,” said Sainsbury. He has just got that arrogance about him. He has got the cheekiness to chuck in a nutmeg here and there and he’s a very quick thinker on the ball. If we can get in his face and not let him get his head up, hopefully we can stop him.”