Asian Cup Final: Australia, South Korea prepare for epic tournament decider
Football's two opposite and eternal forces will collide head on when Australia and South Korea meet in the final of the AFC Asian Cup in Sydney on Saturday.
Uli Stelike's Taeguk Warriors have made fortress football their trademark at this tournament. South Korea have yet to concede a goal in the competition. That record of five clean sheets over 480 minutes of football, which included a 1-0 win over Australia, has been their ticket to the decider.
Contrast that with the Socceroos' path to the final which has been built on an avalanche of goals. Ange Postecoglou's team are the tournament's highest scorers having netted 12 times in their five games. Their chronic dependence on veteran forward Tim Cahill to provide the crucial finish has also diminished with 10 different Socceroos having scored in their run to the final.
The caveat to all of that? No one in green and gold was able to find the back of the net against South Korea.
It's an exquisite equation, one that will divide football fans and reflect their own philosophy on the game. Is it enough to be the optimist and trust that you'll simply score more than your opponent? Or does pragmatism win the day in the belief that as long as you don't concede you can't lose, and that's all that matters?
Certainly, there is no mystery surrounding how both teams will approach the game. Postecoglou has clearly stated he has made his game plan a reflection of the national sporting character.
"Australians want their sporting teams to be aggressive and pro-active, to take the game to their opponents."
True to that creed, that's exactly what his Socceroos have done since he assumed the role as head coach at the end of 2013. Whilst his team is still a work in progress, Postecoglou is fully aware of what a precious opportunity this final is for Australian football.
"We haven't won anything in the men's game yet. And this gives us an opportunity to achieve something."
If they are to claim Asian football's greatest prize they will need to run harder for longer and be sharper and smarter than they were against South Korea in Brisbane.
Stielke's team have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance of their own. South Korea's FIFA World Cup in Brazil last year was a an abject failure, something the German was appointed to rectify quickly -- he has succeeded.
Stielke has schooled his squad on the traditions of the West German teams he represented with distinction in winning the European Championship in 1980 and being a runner up at the FIFA World Cup in 1982. It's a philosophy that prizes implacable defence.
With his central defensive pairing of Kim Young-gwon and Kwak Tae-hwi he has shut the door on teams who rely on midfield skill and speed to score. For Socceroos Matt Leckie, Roobie Kruse, Massimo Luongo and James Triosi the duo present a massive challenge. All four Aussies have had great moments in the tournament but to win on Saturday night they will need to elevate their game collectively to succeed.
South Korea will profit from any loose and lazy football from Australia's ambitious midfield flyers. Winger Nam-Tae-hee is player who runs from the first whistle until the last with an an insatiable appetite for the ball. His ability to score goals has been proven and, following on from a man of the match performance in the semifinal, he will be bursting with confidence. Similarly, Robbie Kruse's Bayer Leverkusen team mate Son Heung-min has enhanced his reputation at this tournament and will present an ever present danger to the Socceroos defence.
In the middle of the park the battle of the captains will be decisive. Stielke's ace in the pack is his captain Ki Sung-yueng. A natural born leader, the South Korean captain has pace, power and a killer pass in his arsenal. Sung-yueng will get forward and join in attacks but he never shirks his responsibility to his back four. And he's a winner. The way he imposed himself on the contest early in the semifinal against Iraq was compelling.
Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak has had a disrupted tournament but has got back to something like his best in the semi against the Unnited Arab Emirates. He will be fully aware that he will need to negate the creativity and rhythm of a dynamic and mobile South Korean midfield. It shapes as the defining game of his career.
And then there is Tim Cahill. Is there any more to say about the talismanic Australian veteran?
The bigger the show, the higher the stakes, the greater the performance. If this final comes down to one moment of magic then he is surely the man.
This tournament deserves a great final. With both teams burning with a desire to succeed we are sure to get one.
Prediction: Australia 1-0 South Korea
Francis is a football commentator and broadcast journalist with ABC Grandstand in Australia. He can be seen regularly on ABC TV's Offsiders. You can follow him on Twitter @SaintFrankly