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Oct 13, 2010

New-look Asian rivals battle to draw

It may have just been in place for the second half of Tuesday's match but the banner stretched from one corner flag to the other behind the goal at the North Stand at Seoul World Cup Stadium as South Korea drew 0-0 in a friendly with Japan. "A people that forget their history have no future," it read in beautifully-drawn Hangul.

There is little danger of Koreans letting the 35 years of Japanese colonisation that ended in 1945 slip from the collective memory. With 40 wins and just 12 defeats from 73 meetings on the football pitch, South Korea's superiority over their neighbours in the period since liberation is a happier recollection for residents in the Land of the Morning Calm.

There was nothing calm about the latest meeting between the two Asian giants. It wasn't a game for the purists but it was one that you couldn't take your eyes off for a second. It was frantic, frenetic and fast - with less space available than a Monday morning at Seoul or Tokyo stations. "A typical Korea-Japan match," shrugged the injured Park Ji-Sung afterwards, his newly-dyed red hair shining under the cameras. It was also the last game that these two teams will play this year, significant since the 2011 Asian Cup kicks off in January.

Much has changed since January 2010, especially for a Japan that has had a year of two halves. Samurai Blue started with goalless draws against Venezuela and China and then a 3-1 loss to Korea in Saitama. The Taeguk Warriors repeated the feat in Tokyo in May. That 2-0 win was more comfortable, so much so that Korea FA officials snuck out of the stadium for a while to save Japan FA counterparts the embarrassment of offering congratulations right after the game. Japanese fans, still angry after April's 3-0 home defeat to a reserve Serbian team, stayed to make their feelings known.

If the team hadn't been leaving for the World Cup the very next day, then coach Takeshi Okada may have gone. As it was the JFA had little choice but to stand by their man. The surprising reward was two wins in the group stage, goals to remember from Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo and a place in the second round for the first time at an overseas World Cup.

Despite the plaudits that finally came his way from a press that tucked into humble pie with what can only be described as gusto, Okada went his way. In came Alberto Zaccheroni, the first Italian manager of Japan in his first time coaching outside his native country. Neither side knew what to expect and neither side in his debut match, Japan or Argentina, expected what came in Saitama last Friday - a historic 1-0 win for Samurai Blue over the Albicelestes.

If Zac - that is the nickname he asked for when arriving in September - had followed that with a win in Seoul, he could almost have been in danger of starting too well. The fans though, with their desire to serve revenge as a dish warmer than this cool October night in the Korean capital, could have lived with that.

The Japanese often say, by way of explanation of their poor record against their western neighbours, that Koreans lift their game when playing against the old enemy. That is true to an extent, but then Japan do the same; it is just that the added intensity often suits Reds more than Blues. That wasn't the case in the first half however. Japan, lining up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, had the better of the opening period and exhibited a composure and control on the ball that their opponents lacked, though it was not enough to create many clear openings.

That man Honda, now a genuine star and shadowed by the press - both Japanese and Korean - off the pitch as much as he pressed by defenders on it, was the first to go close. A smart rising shot forced a good save out of goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong, who put in one of his most assured performances since taking the gloves from Lee Woon-Jae in May. The same can't be said for all of his team-mates. Shin Hyung-Min and Yoon Bitgaram, an unlikely combination in midfield, struggled against Yasuhito Endo, making his 100th appearance for Japan, and the classy Makoto Hasebe. After the Iran defeat last month, new South Korea coach Cho Kwang-Rae opted for a 4-1-4-1 formation. It left the team looking unbalanced and uncertain and the absence of captain Park was clearly felt.

The unavailability of Japan's two central defenders from the World Cup, Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa was less of an obvious problem as a sloppy Korea never really put the new-look backline under pressure, too often too happy to launch long balls forward. Matters improved for the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists after the break as they pushed further forward.

Chances were still few and far between but Japan were on the backfoot for much of the first half of the second period. Park Chu-Young went relatively close twice around the hour mark and, near the end, the Monaco marksman should have done better than head an inviting Yeom Ki-Hoon cross tamely into the eager embrace of stand-in keeper Shusaku Nishikawa.

By that time, Japan should have had a penalty as Choi Hyo-Jin handled a Daisuke Matsui cross in the area and then Honda almost capped an impressive display with a goal with two minutes to go. The CSKA Moscow star burst through the middle and despite having options, good ones too, chose to shoot from the edge of the area. Jung was equal to the task.

It was a game that Japan felt they did just enough to win in the noisy backyard of their rivals. Despite his frustration, Zaccheroni was largely satisfied after the match, much more so than the Korean press. Things can change quickly in football. Japan may not have been as good as their rivals were in Tokyo earlier this year and Korea may not have been as bad as Japan were but less than five months after that meeting, Japan head into 2011 and the Asian Cup the happier and more settled-looking team. Korea, in contrast, have much to do and not much time to do it in.

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