South Korea arrive into this final on the back of five straight clean sheets. Even more, they have rarely been threatened and the term “fortress Korea” would not been an understatement for the highly organized and determined side which has been formed under new coach Uli Stielike’s guidance. This is in far cry to the national embarrassment felt after the dreadful 2014 World Cup showing, which resulted in the rather bizarre scene of toffees being thrown by fans at the players upon their arrival at Incheon International Airport.
In many ways Stielike has molded the team along the same lines of the famous European Championship-winning side of 1980 and World Cup runners up of 1982. Stielike himself was known as “the stopper” and in the fantastic central defensive pairing of Kim Young-gwon and Kwak Tae-hwi he has found players who perfectly suit the style of football he espouses. In Cha Du-ri, the evergreen right back who was part of the famous 2002 World Cup squad, and Son Heung-min, he has real attacking quality to match which is ultimately why Korea have sailed through the tournament without being seriously challenged.
Stielike must also take huge credit for the shock and bizarre inclusion of Lee Jeong-Hyeop, or “Gundarella”, the man who has struggled for goals and indeed starting time for the relegated military service side Sangju FC. Jeong Hyeop has scored some crucial goals and his raw power has caused problems for every side he has come up against in this tournament , including scoring the winner against Australia when these teams met in the group stages – something which Stielike remarkably judged.
Australia come into the final on the back of some momentum with solid but perhaps unspectacular victories against China and then UAE in the quarter and semi finals. They are the highest scorers in the competition and although the last match against the UAE in particular was slightly flat, coach Ange Postecoglou will be confident that his attacking three of Matthew Leckie, Robbie Kruse and Tim Cahill will offer more penetration than they did against the Emirati. Leckie and Kruse have surprisingly low international goal scoring returns for the Socceroos with only five goals in over 50 caps between them. That places more pressure on man-of-the-tournament Tim Cahill, but if anyone can deliver when most needed, than surely he can.
We know how Postecoglou side will line up – high in the first 15 minutes to test the opposition – and Korea will have to be wary of the threat in those crucial minutes, especially with a highly partisan and passionate Aussie crowd to contend with. Korean football places great emphasis on drilling its players to defend set pieces and crosses and as we see with the first game in which these two sides lined up – albeit in a dead rubber – Korea will be able to comfortably defend the aerial bombardment which has demolished every other team Australia have come across in this tournament.
There will be an interesting midfield battle between Mile Jedinak and Ki Sung-Yeung, two of the biggest names of the Asian Cup. The former has not played to the levels we have previously seen of him, whereas Sung-Yeung has been absolutely fantastic in orchestrating the Korean side, setting the tempo, and showing the strong leadership which Stielike would have wanted when he named the Swansea man captain.
The Socceroos have yet to win a major tournament and Korea have not won this cup since 1960. There will be much at stake, but I would not expect a classic match in terms of play. Expect to see lots of Korean possession in their own half with Australia frustrated at an inability to hurt the Korean defence. I feel Australia’s defence is still too leaky and the Korea side will have just enough attacking quality to edge it. A tight game which would not be a surprise if the final outcome was penalties.
Prediction: Korea 1 – 0 Australia