Whether it’s Australia or South Korea that lifts the Asian Cup after Saturday’s final, victory will have been a long time coming. Australia’s quest will take center stage as they seek their first continental triumph since switching to the Asian Football Confederation in 2006, and on home soil to boot. Yet South Korea, despite long being one of the powers of Asian soccer, have not lifted the Asian Cup since winning its first two editions in 1956 and 1960. Indeed this is the first time they have even made the final for 27 years.
Australia suffered frustration four years ago when losing in the final to Japan, in what was the last swansong for many of the so-called golden generation of players that peaked in reaching the last 16 of the 2006 World Cup. With the likes of Harry Kewell, Lucas Neil and Brett Emerton gone, a new generation won just one of 11 matches in 2014, including three, admittedly battling, defeats at the World Cup. Coming into the Asian Cup, the pressure was on coach Ange Postecoglou to claim the trophy for the host nation, yet with plenty of trepidation swirling among the public.
But, inspired by the last remaining member of that 2006 generation, Tim Cahill, they have so far delivered. They have done so despite a 1-0 defeat in their final group game to the team they’ll meet again in Saturday’s final at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium. That loss had seemingly put them on a path to another meeting with their regular foes Japan in the semifinals, but the tournament favorites suffered a shock loss to the United Arab Emirates. The Socceroos managed to avoid the same fate thanks to a 2-0 victory, and Postecoglou is delighted to have put smiles on the home fans’ faces.
"I think Australian supporters want their teams to be really aggressive and proactive and taking games to opponents and I think we've done that in this tournament," he said, according to Reuters. “We've scored more goals than any other team at this tournament and created plenty of chances and we've only conceded twice. I think the general feeling I'm getting from supporters is that they are loving watching this team.”
South Korea have also overcome struggles to get into the continental showpiece. Under former playing great Myung-Bo Hong, a promising young generation endured a disastrous World Cup, taking just a single point from one of the competition’s most favorable groups. After Hong stepped down, South Korea went in a dramatically different direction and turned to the experienced and pragmatic German coach Uli Stielike. The results at the Asian Cup have been overwhelmingly encouraging.
A nation that was a defensive shambles in Brazil, particularly in a 4-2 loss to Algeria, has not conceded a goal through five matches en route to the final in Australia. Pivotal to that form has been the performances of captain and Swansea City midfielder Sung-Yueng Ki. Another of the star names, Bayer Leverkusen’s Heung-Min Song has also delivered, as has a player who was largely unknown before the tournament began. Jeong-Hyeop Lee, a 23-year-old striker for military team Sangju Sangmu, was uncapped prior to the competition but scored the winner against Australia in the group phase and then got the opening goal in the 2-0 semifinal win over Iraq. Despite their formidable record, it’s at the other end where Stielike has concerns going into the final.
“This situation can be very dangerous,” the former Germany defender and assistant coach said, according to AFP. “It's what happens when you concede a goal and how you react that is important. You can't let the players get their heads down. You have to be prepared for that and have a reaction.”
Kickoff time: 4 a.m. EST
TV channel: One World Sports
Prediction: Australia 1 - 0 South Korea