Up to this point, above, the possession-dominant Aussies (never below 59 percent for a game this tournament) had been stifled by China goalkeeper Wang Delei. But just as he did at last summer’s World Cup, Tim Cahill came up with a goal of the tournament candidate, the first of two goals in today’s second half in Brisbane. Australia would go on to win 2-0 and advance to the 2015 Asian Cup’s semifinals, sending China home after its only loss of the tournament.
The goals came in the wake of fears that a highly-criticized Suncorp Stadium field would prevent the Socceroos from playing their normal, prolific passing style, though as Cahill reminded everybody after halftime, Australia now has more than one way to beat a team. Whereas coming into the competition many feared the host nation was too dependent on its all-time leading scorer, Australia had posted a tournament-high eight goals in three games, with Cahill only chipping in one. On Thursday, however, the Socceroos reverted to their tried and true source, with Cahill’s trademark aerial dominance also on display for the game’s final goal:
Throughout the tournament, we’ve talked about warning signs — hints that the favorites may be rounding into form. Iran’s still unblemished defense. Keisuke Honda becoming more threatening for Japan. Going into the quarterfinals, those two teams may have been the tournament favorites. Now, with Cahill confirming he can still be a decisive player, Australia’s showing a more well-rounded version of itself. If teams can thwart them the same way the South Koreans did in the teams’ final group game, defeating Australia 1-0, Postegolou’s team has another option. Rested, Cahill only played the final 19 minutes of that game. Had he been on for the whole 90, Australia could would have had a direct option to utilize as it dominated the ball.
That’s bad news for Japan, Australia’s likely opponent in the semifinals. Though the Samurai Blue still have to get through the United Arab Emirates in Friday’s quarters to forge a rematch of the 2011 final, Javier Aguirre’s team will be huge favorites. If it loses, the result would be the upset of the tournament.
Japan can play both on the counter or with the ball. It hasn’t conceded all competition, so the goals, shots, and possession numbers Australia’s accumulated are unlikely to faze it. Through group stage, the holders were the tournament’s strongest team, in addition to being its most talented.
But if Cahill’s on form, Australia has a way to steal the match, if not outright win it. The FIFA rankings say it’s the 100th best team in the world, but with a possession-heavy approach, the Socceroos will have plenty of chances to ping balls at their most desirable target. It may take only one Japanese mistake (and some Australia ball-hoarding) to give the hosts revenge for 2011.
In the day’s first game, South Korea’s Achilles heel was nearly exposed, though the performance of Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov has a lot to do with the Koreans’ continued scoring woes. Perfect coming into the knockout round, Uli Stielike’s team had only scored three times, playing into worries that the team had yet to solve its long-standing problems at striker. After 90 minutes of scoreless soccer today in Melbourne, those worries became outright fears. Group A’s winners were one goal from going home.
But much like Cahill stepped up for Australia, one of South Korea’s biggest stars stepped up for it. Son Heung-min, after battling illness for much of the group stage, came close twice in Thursday’s second half yet was unable to snare a winner in regulation time. In the extra half hour, however, the Bayer Leverkusen attacker bagged his first two goals of the tournament, sending South Korea through to a third straight semifinal.
Four games, four wins, and no goals allowed, yet with an impending meeting with Iran (provided the Group C champions win their Friday derby), South Korea’s presenting plenty of reasons to worry. An Uzbekistan team that again sat legendary attacker Server Djeparov should have been put away, but strong goalkeeping and Korea’s continued finishing woes meant the Uzbeks can a couple of chances to steal the game. Against an Iran team that relies on its counterattack, Stielike’s team won’t get as much leeway, and facing another team that’s yet to concede a goal, the Taegeuk Warriors can’t be trusted to break through.
A healthy Son is their best chance. As much as Thursday’s goals hint he could be decisive in the semifinals, the fact that he went 120 minutes may be as important. Hospitalized before the second game of the competition with a sudden illness, Son had started only one of three games during the group stage. Now, able to play at least a full 90, Son could put Korea’s biggest fitness concern behind it. The team will need its attack as healthy as possible if it’s going to break through Iran.
Off the field
Iran-Iraq is Friday’s glamour matchup, with plenty of my people age (mid-30s) remembering a time when a war between the two countries was always one of the lead stories on the nightly news. Twenty-six years later, however, there’s little lingering resentment to be found on the soccer field. As Amro Alkado from SandalsForGoalposts.com notes, this wasn’t even the most intriguing West Asian Derby possible, given on-the-field considerations:
… the political backdrop is maybe the only thing that makes it anymore interesting than a match up against UAE or Qatar would for Iraq (and recently Iraq would have loved the chance to exact revenge on UAE). Similarly Iran against Saudi or Bahrain also has strong political connotations and many of their fans do not see this as a particularly exciting West Asian derby.
It’s not going to be exciting on the field, either. Iran’s been effective but dire to watch, and Iraq is the weakest quarterfinalist. As Alkado notes, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this go deep into extra time without a breakthrough, even if Iran is the consensus favorite.
Elsewhere, while fawning over United Arab Emirates creator Omar Abdulrahman, we noted the strange set of circumstances that makes it unlikely the 23-year-old would adjust to Europe. Al-Ain likely plays him well, he’s not good enough to break in with a glamorous club, and he’s small, about 135 pounds.
One thing we didn’t consider, though? Let’s call them “specific demographic advantages:”
Abdulrahman could get some minutes at City as one of Manuel Pellegrini’s interiors (the wide-to-in, advanced midfielders in the team’s 4-4-2 formation), but he’s no David Silva or Samir Nasri. He’s not even a Jesús Navas or James Milner. But, maybe “specific demographic advantages” are his ticket north … even though this rumor (like most) is likely hogwash.
Iran vs. Iraq – 12:30 a.m. Eastern, Canberra Stadium (winner faces South Korea)
Japan vs. United Arab Emirtes – 3:30 a.m. Eastern, ANZ Stadium, Sydney (winner faces Australia)
Where They Stand
Shout out to Wikipedia, again.
Knockout round bracket
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
Day 10: China imperfect perfection; Uzbekistan’s big gamble
Day 11: Iran’s ugly way too much for Omar Abdulrahman
Day 12: A Japan with peak Keisuke Honda is not going to lose
Day 13: Power ranking all the best things about the 2015 Asian Cup, so far
Day 14: Cahill, Son carry their teams into the semifinals