Many factors favour South Korea in Asian Cup semi but don't write off Iraq
The 2015 AFC Asian Cup has come to life after Iraq and the United Arab Emirates' shock wins against their much-fancied quarterfinal opponents, Iran and Japan. The question now is: can the West Asian giant-killers keep the fairytale going in Australia?
Iraq face South Korea in the first of the semifinals in Sydney on Monday night.
With both teams having played 120 minutes in their respective quarterfinals, the Koreans will look to make their extra day's rest count.
"We have to play the fast ball, make challenges, we have to make Iraq run a lot to make use of the one day advantage", Korea's German coach Uli Steilike said in the pre-match media conference.
Iraq's quarterfinal victory over Iran in Canberra will go down as one of the classic matches in Asian Cup history. The Iraqis prevailed over their fierce rivals in a penalty shoot out, after the match finished 3-3 in extra time, with four of the goals coming after 90 minutes.
The enigmatic Younus Mahmood turned back the years putting in one of his best displays in an Iraqi shirt, reminiscent of his 2007 Asian Cup MVP performances. But in a changing of the guard, it was English-based Yaser Kasim who delivered in the clutch moments for his national team. The Swindon Town midfielder's suspension, due to receiving two yellow cards in the tournament, could be a crucial blow for the Lions of Mesopotamia.
Iraqi coach Radhi Swadi said: "Yaser is a big loss, Yaser is a rising star in Asia. We (the coaching staff] always planned that we would lose players during the tournament, due to injury or suspension. This is a great opportunity for someone to come in and continue the great work Yaser has done for the national team."
That someone could be 23-year-old Osamah Rashid, who plays for Alphense Boys in the Dutch fourth division. The former Feyenoord U-19 midfielder has only seen 28 minutes of action so far in the tournament, but has the potential to step up in Kasim's absence.
Iraq will be looking to repeat the result of the last time when these two teams met, in the semifinals of the 2007 Asian Cup. Iraq triumphed over Korea in a penalty shootout, after a scoreless draw in Kuala Lumpur.
"We hope to repeat our 2007 success with the new generation of players that we have unearthed in this tournament and hope to move forward with this group of players," Swadi said.
For South Korea, it is their third consecutive semifinals appearance in the Asian Cup. Stielike has remodeled the Korean's game plan to focus on the defensive structure which leaves them as the only team in the tournament with a 100% win record and no goals conceded.
Bayer Leverkusen's forward, Son Heung-min has now fully recovered from the virus that has limited his game time. The 22-year-old's two goals in the quarterfinal against Uzbekistan exemplified his value to a side who are short of world-class attackers.
After rotating his goalkeepers in the opening two games, Stielike has now settled on Cerezo Osaka custodian Kim Jin-hyeon.
"Kim has great balance one of the best goalkeepers in Korea with his balance, he is a big part of our four clean sheets," Stielike said. "We have found stability in our defensive base, the base of our success is our defensive work."
Many factors seem to be in Korea's favour, which makes the Taeguk Warriors overwhelming favourites. But Stielike is doing his best to keep his players focused.
"Only South Korea is still in the championship from the top four seeded teams [Iran, Japan, and Uzbekistan have been eliminated]. Sport is all about surprises, and if we don't want a surprise we have to work very hard."
In an ironic twist, Swadi coaches two of the players in the Korean squad -- Choo Young-cheol and Han Kook-young -- in his day job as manager of Qatar Sports Club.
"While both our teams were in Brisbane I had a chance to catch up with them," Swadi said. "They wished me luck and said they hope we can meet in the final, but unfortunately we are meeting in the semifinal. I look forward to working with them back at Qatar Sports Club, in early February."
The stakes are high for both nations. South Korea are aiming to end their 55-year wait for continental glory, while the Iraqi players will be carrying the hopes and dreams of an embattled nation on their shoulders.
The weary Iraqis are massive underdogs so the Koreans should win. But then again, that's what they said eight years ago before Iraq won the 2007 semifinal and then defeated Saudi Arabia in the final for their one and only Asian Cup title.
Alan Mtashar is an Australian based Asian football reporter, who has written for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo Australia, as well as several publications across the Middle East. He has also appeared as an analyst on Fox Sports, SBS and Al Arabiya Television. Follow him on twitter @alanmtashar