After 28 games over a period of three weeks, the final of the Asian Cup takes place tomorrow with South Korea taking on host nation Australia. Whilst not considered as one of the pinnacle International tournaments, this year’s event has showcased the talent that can be found in this region and just how far the game has progressed. Competitiveness in the region has improved dramatically over the past decade with more teams challenging for final spots in the tournament. Along with the regulars like Japan, South Korea, UAE and Australia come new pretenders like Qatar, Uzbekistan and debutantes this year, Palestine highlighting the rich diversity that this cup has.
It’s an incredible achievement for Palestine to reach the Asian Cup and one that has not gone unnoticed in the footballing community. Despite much publicized adverse conditions, the Palestine team qualified in style by winning the AFC Challenge Cup without conceding a single goal and drawing only one out of the five games. Whilst their experience in Australia was not quite what they had hoped for (three defeats, eleven goals conceded, only one goal scored) they exit the tournament with their heads held high. Similarly Uzbekistan’s remarkable resurgence continues as they put up an impressive show by finishing second in what was a difficult group Despite losing to group winners China, they secured good wins over North Korea and Saudi Arabia to progress to the quarter finals where they were eventually knocked out by South Korea.
It should be a great final between arguably two of the strongest teams in the region. The pair met in the group stages in a hotly contested battle with South Korea eventually coming out on top thanks to a goal from Jung Hyub Lee. Australia will be looking to make amends in the final in front of the home crowd at the packed ANZ stadium in Sydney. There is extra incentive for the Aussies heading into the match given that they have never won the Asian Cup. Their best performance to date was four years ago in Qatar when they reached the final only to be beat by Japan in extra time. The memories of that day still live fresh in the mind of Australian legend Tim Cahill. The former Everton midfielder has been the heart and soul of the Australian team for over a decade and did announce his retirement from international football after last year’s World Cup, only to be persuaded to stay on for the Asian Cup. For Cahill, it was an opportunity to sign off in style – a win in the Asian Cup on home turf his final swan song. His contribution and influence to the team is unquestionable but along with it he brings goals. His three goals so far, including an impressive brace against China have propelled Australia to the final. Now one last performance is needed from their star man to rewrite history and finally put Australia’s name on the Asian Cup.
Standing in their way is two times champions South Korea. Despite having not won the trophy since 1960, South Korea have been there and thereabouts in almost every tournament since, three times finishing as runners up and four times as the third place team. After a dismal World Cup where they failed to show their true potential, picking up only one point from a possible nine in a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening game. Changes at the top were made fairly quickly upon their return with manager Hong Myung-Bo being sacked and replaced by former West Germany midfielder turn sweeper Uli Stielike. Having spent the six years before coaching Qatar based sides Al Arabi and Al Sailiya; Stielike understood the significance of the Asian Cup and immediately started to put plans in place for an aggressive assault on the competition. He wasted little time in refreshing the squad he inherited adding Hoffenheim’s Jin Su Kim and Guangzhou’s Hyun-Soo Jang to a defense which was considered one of the worst in the World Cup. Stielike who was affectionately nicknamed “The Stopper” as a player has tightened up the defence and has encouraged the front line to close down more in order to play a high line game and relieve the pressure on the backline. So far the plan has worked with South Korea managing to get all the way to the final without conceding. Upfront the addition of fairly unknown striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop has transformed the attack and given South Korea an edge in the matches they have played so far.
With the expectations on what South Korea should achieve at this tournament set low by the South Korean FA, Stielike and his side can look forward to the final with no pressure attached. It would be nice to complete the tournament without conceding a single goal as it would illustrate how far they have come since Brazil and in turn restore pride back into their bewildered fans but for the manager the only thing that is important is the victory. He knows that it will be a different Australia than the one they faced in the group stage and will be prepared for a hostile crowd. For the neutral it will be a match to remember with two of Asia’s best teams going at it with an intense ferocity for at least ninety minutes if not more. The victor will lift the trophy that night and earn their place in the record books whilst the loser will go back and ponder what could have been.