The AFC Asian Cup, the signature tournament of the world’s biggest continent, often passes through unnoticed in the global game. While the African Cup of Nations has begun to dominate the headlines, the Asian Cup has had to settle for second place. Still, this year’s tournament has truly been remarkable and a huge landmark for the development of Asian football and its enormous potential. All 24 group games finished without a draw, an astonishing feat which has broken world records and perhaps may never be witnessed again.
The tournament in Australia has been an incredible success locally with over 300,000 fans flocking to watch the games so far. Empty seats have been rare and even teams which traditionally do not attract a huge following such as Uzbekistan and North Korea have been adopted by the Aussie fans.
Now, with four matches remaining, we must look ahead to the crucial semifinals. Which of the four teams remaining in the competition will become the new champions of Asia?
South Korea vs Iraq
South Korea have reached the semifinals while being on the receiving end of national criticism, with many observers pouring scorn on the lethargic nature of the Korean team and how they have sailed through without playing well.
Opponents Iraq made it after an unconvincing group stage performance where they almost came up stuck against footballing minnows Palestine, yet shocked the Asian footballing world by defeating Iran.
For those of us familiar with the current Korean national team, the lethargy of the team comes as no surprise. It might be difficult to say that new coach Uli Stielike has made the team more exciting to watch, but he has undoubtedly added a steely resilience to the Korean side. Yet I disagree with those doomsayers who state that Korea have performed badly in this tournament. They have won all four games, including defeating host nation and now-favourites Australia, without conceding a goal. That alone tells you that South Korea are going to be incredibly difficult to beat.
No, they have not been glamorous, and the slow tempo of attack will always give opposite teams a chance to defend. But with Swansea City’s Ki Sung-Yeung and Bayer Leverkusen’s Song Heung-Min both in scintillating form, Korea will also have a goal threat which will be too great for Iraq, who will surely be exhausted after a marathon 3-3 draw after 120 minutes which concluded in a penalties win against bitter rivals Iran.
In that Friday evening match, Iraq arguably played one of the greatest matches in Asian football history when they upset 10-men Iran, who were one of the favourites to win the competition. The Lions of Mesopotamia played with heart, steel and resolve, though they still looked physically exhausted after 120 minutes of relentless action.
Iraq, who shocked the world by winning the tournament in 2007, will have to put in another miracle performance if they are to upset the Koreans. One gets the feeling that Iraq found an extra 10% playing against rivals Iran, and I do not believe they will have enough quality or energy left to hurt the well organised Koreans. Another clean sheet and Son Heung-Min goal will see the Taeguk Warriors through comfortably.
Prediction: South Korea 2-0 Iraq
Australia vs UAE
Australia were excellent in their quarterfinal against China, who came into the match on good form. It seemed for the first time in the tournament that the huge number of fanatical Aussies who came into support the team were a help for the team, rather than a hindrance. In the first three matches Australia looked nervy and unsettled under the weight of huge expectations. Against China, however, it all seemed to fit and the hosts dominated throughout with the crowd powering them on.
In contrast, the speedy UAE arrive in the semis on the back of the shock of the tournament so far, defeating pre-tournament favourites and defending champions Japan on penalties after withstanding their attacks for most of two hours of play.
This promises to be a fantastic match, I predicted the UAE shock against Japan as I felt they were a side with real pace and creativity, two ingredients largely lacking in Asian football, and would damage the predictable Japanese side. In Omar Abdulrahman, the afro-haired attacking midfielder, the Emirati have a real diamond who has the ability to unlock any defence in this tournament. Racy-sharp, fast, and gifted with fantastic ball control, it is surely now a matter of time before he makes the move to the A-league or even Europe itself, with several big name European clubs set to be looking at him.
Australia will be particularly pleased at keeping their first clean sheet of the tournament, and it will be a dilemma as to whether Ange Postecoglou will keep the same back four or bring back previously suspended Matt Spiranovic, who looked considerably wobbly in the opening group matches. Highly rated goalkeeper and Liverpool target Matt Ryan will have to distribute the ball better to ease the pressure on his defence. Too often this tournament he has gifted away possession.
Yet, with the recently-termed “freakish” Tim Cahill, who at 35 does not seem to grasp the ageing process, and the raw, powerful Matthew Leckie powering forward, Australia have no shortage of attacking quality and with Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak dominating in midfield, Australia will have too much physically for the UAE who will be physically overawed by the Socceroos. Yet, they do offer the potential to cause a threat and will attack whenever possible, which should make for a fascinating and highly exciting match to keep the ever-growing number of Socceroo fans entertained.
Prediction: Australia 3 – 1 UAE