Two games was enough to foster a few premature notions about the 2015 Asian Cup. A maturing China. The stalwart Iranians. The disappointing Qatar. Going into the final matches of group play, we needed a few narratives to drive the drama.
The stories around Group A were clear. Australia, a host nation with questions coming into the tournament, had been impressive through its first two matches. A +7 goal difference gave the impression that it, not the defending champion Japanese, was the tournament favorite. Contrast that with South Korea, the other consistent power in Group A – a team that needed two 1-0 wins to maintain its perfect record ahead of today’s meeting with the Socceroos. Thinned by injuries and yet to solve its problems in front of goal, the Koreans looked less like threat than a team that could get picked off before the semifinals.
But the funny part about soccer narratives is they’re so rarely true, particularly in major tournaments. The notions are based on too little evidence, fueled by heightened interest that relies on tropes over evidence or results. It’s natural to see two big wins from Australia and ask whether its 100 ranking in FIFA’s table is drastically off – whether the energy we often see home nations carry through tournaments could fuel the Socceroos. Before the tournament, Australia was thought to have a suspect defense, but that lark had given way to the idea that Ange Postecoglou’s desire to inject young legs into an aging squad was paying off.
Half an hour into today’s match in Brisbane, however, that lark was back. After nearly opening the scoring off an early corner, South Korea picked apart the left side of the Australian defense, taking advantage of the host’s inability to track Lee Keun-Ho for the day’s only goal. After being played behind the defense, Lee’s square ball into the six-yard box allowed Lee Jeong-hyeop to beat Maty Ryan, his poke inside the far corner giving South Korea its third straight 1-0 win. It was Australia’s first loss in 22 games on home soil.
The play was the type of defensive breakdown we were supposed to expect from the hosts. Right back Ivan Franjić pushed too far up field on a ball rotated out of Australia’s right corner. Midfielder Nathan Burns, having collapsed toward the flag to help, didn’t notice the mistake and allowed Lee Keun-ho to run into the vacated area. When Korean holder Ki Sung-yueng found him in the left the box, Australia’s defense was left scrabbling, a state Korea exploited when Lee Jeong-hyeop beat Socceroos’ midfielder Mark Milligan to a near post run. Where left center back Matthew Špiranović could have potentially covered for his pulled out partner, Trent Sainsbury, Korea found space, its execution producing the game’s only goal.
“We switched off for the goal but we defended well aside from that,” Postecoglous explained after the match. To the extent there may be lingering concerns about Australia’s defense, the Socceroos coach does not appear to share them.
Australia came close two other times – a first half try by James Troisi that went just wide of Kim Jin-hyeon’s left post, and a point-blank chance for Robbie Kruse that forced Kim into one of the night’s biggest saves. That other save came off the arm Ryan after Korea sent Jang Hyun-soo alone on goal. Ultimately, Australia was left to console itself with a controlling performance that lacked a final product, even if there were a number of good looks.
The final result may have been noteworthy, but the implications may prove few, part of the reason why the injured Mile Jedinak wasn’t pressed into action for Australia, and Son Heung-min was allowed to come off the bench for Korea. By that time, Uli Stielike had seen two more players injured: Park Joo-ho leaving after a head injury, and Koo Ja-cheol suffering a dislocated elbow. Postecoglou also rotated his entire attack, leaving first choice striker Tim Cahill on the bench until the 71st minute. Juxtaposed against a balanced Group B, one that lacks a true power, the benefits of finishing first over second were small, even if we now have a slightly better idea of what South Korea (and Australia) can do.
“We needed this confirmation that we could do it better than we did in the first two games,” explained Stielike, whose team will avoid a semifinal rematch with rival Japan, if it makes it that far. Now, four years after going out on penalties in the semifinals, South Korea can set its sights on the crown.
As for the day’s other game, well, it meant nothing. Here’s Oman and Kuwait.
Off the field
From a turnout standpoint, Australia 2015 has already been a success …
… but nothing kicks a tournament into high gear like a biblical plague. You can’t buy the type of publicity that comes with an attack of locusts, or frogs, or whatever it was Christian Bale was dealing with in that movie.
Thus, the Soccer Gods, lovers of Asian confederation soccer that they are, sent a deluge of moths to Brisbane today, with a swarm of the gross little nightmares descending on the hosts’ showdown with South Korea.
All those brown spots on the ball? Yep. You can practically feel their little hyperactive wings on the back of your neck. Most moths are nocturnal. These were assholes.
Nope! Shut up, “David M Watson.” From this vantage point, that damn thing might was well be on my eyeball.
See that one favorite, David Sciasci? That’s the world rejecting your exclamation point. The time you spent posting this tweet could have been spent contacting the authorities.
Thankfully, heroes in “ghostbusters” gear were seen throughout the game, attempting to deal with this threat. But unfortunately, I still have to sleep tonight. In my dreams, I’m pretty sure those moths are waiting.
Group B finishes play on Sunday, with Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan playing for second place in Melbourne. The Uzbeks, semifinalists four years ago, need a win to go through. Any result for Saudi Arabia sends the Green Falcons into the quarterfinals.
The group’s other match is meaningless. China has already clinched first place in the group, while North Korea will be going home, regardless.
Uzbekistan vs. Saudi Arabia – 3:00 a.m. Eastern, Melbourne Rectangular Stadium
China vs. North Korea – Canberra Stadium
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?
Day 6: The tournament’s first upset puts China into the final eight
Day 7: Iran may be good and unwatchable
Day 8: The new Japan versus Australia (versus Iran) question
Day 9: So much for the Australian juggernaut