Two teams, both 2-0-0, yet after 180 minutes of play, the expectations around Australia and South Korea are moving in different directions. After the host nation’s 4-0 win over Oman, Australia appears less of a team ready to be undone by its defense than an attacking force that my overcome all ills. South Korea, on the other hand, continue to entertain fears that a chronically misfiring attack will be its undoing, with a second straight 1-0 win, this time over Kuwait, leaving its coach worried about Group A’s co-leaders.
But the talk of the tournament’s fifth day was the host nation. Playing without injured captain Mile Jedinak, the Socceroos went into halftime up 3-0 on Oman, with goals from Matt McKay, man of the match Robbie Kruse and Mark Milligan, who filled Jedinak’s boots with a conversion from the spot three minutes into first half stoppage time. Tomi Jurić’s second half goal finished the scoring in the 70th minute, giving Ange Postecoglou’s team a +7 goal difference heading into Saturday’s showdown against the Koreans.
Contrast that with South Korea, a team whose coach was left doubting after a second straight unconvincing 1-0.
Playing without three of its best attackers, Korea struggled to convert its control of possession into good chances, a description that would be far less troublesome if it didn’t apply to so many previous Korean performances. The team’s biggest Achilles heal coming into the tournament was its lack of goal scoring. After today’s game in Canberra, where Tae-Hee Nam’s goal came from a relatively straight forward first half cross, Korea has two goals in two games against the same teams Australia’s ripped open for eight. Uli Stielike’s team may be better equipped to prevent those goals, but there’s no indication it will be able to exploit a suspect Australian defense.
Over the past four days, we’ve expended a lot of electrons trying to identify tournament favorites, with the United Arab Emirates and Japan making the best cases. Australia, who we were initially dismissive about after its 4-1 win over Kuwait, clearly deserve to be in that group, if not at the head of it.
Perhaps there’s reason to question whether Matthew Špiranović and Trent Sainsbury can hold up in central defense, but consider how Oz has performed relative to Korea. Korea is flawed and disappointing but still thoroughly respectable. And to this point, Australia has been far more impressive.
Regardless, both teams are into the second round, with the result of Saturday’s match unlikely to have a major impact on either team’s tournament hopes. While each might want to avoid Uzbekistan, who are expected to win Group B, both nations would like their chances against the 2011 semifinalists. Korea could use 90 minutes to get its thinning squad in order rather than approach the showdown as win at all costs.
Off the field
Breaking: Australia can be quite beautiful:
Perhaps that scene explains why 50,276 showed up to ANZ Stadium in Sydney for tonight’s Socceroos match, but given the crowds the host nation usually draws, the large showing was par for the course. More concerning was the crowd in Canberra, where only 8,795 turned out to see South Korea. At this point, though, concerning may be an exaggeration. The occasionally small crowds, particularly in a place like Canberra, are just a part of the tournament.
Another continuing theme was injuries, though today’s ailment was a little more mysterious. After missing training on Monday through illness, Korean star Son Heung-min was taken to the hospital this morning, according to Stielike.
While there was no indication the ailment is serious, it did cause Son to miss today’s game, and his status for the increasingly depleted Koreans is uncertain.
Also important, the tournament’s best beard:
Aziz Mashaan and Kuwait will go home after Saturday’s match against Oman, but the attacking midfielder deserves a move to Serie A.
Group B is back in action on Tuesday, with co-leaders China and Uzbeksitan facing off in Brisbane. In the day’s opener, North Korea will look to back up its coach’s lofty rhetoric with a win over Saudi Arabia, whose scoreless opening game loss played into fears Nassir Al-Shamrani’s absence will derail its tournament.
North Korea vs. Saudi Arabia – 1:00 a.m. Eastern, Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, Melbourne
China vs. Uzbekistan – 3:00 a.m. Eastern, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Where they stand
Shout out to Wikipedia, again.
Day 1: Host nations should always cruise
Day 2: Goalkeepers and weather the stars
Day 3: Did our first favorite step forward?
Day 4: The defending champions announce their arrival
Day 5: How can two perfect teams be headed in different directions?