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Jan 14, 2011

All equal amid contrasting styles

The Asian Confederation is FIFA's largest and most diverse constituency, making the Asian Cup a fascinating tournament of contrasting styles. Australia and South Korea appeared on paper to be one of the matches of the group stage and the real thing didn't disappoint as two teams of very different football philosophies but ultimately similar levels of overall quality were forced to share the spoils in what could conceivable have been a sneak preview of the tournament final.

Australia 1-1 South Korea

Each side's strengths and flaws were magnified by those of their opponents, making for an engrossing encounter. It was a match of three thirds, with each evenly-spaced goal providing a turning point to a narrative that had a happy ending for both combatants in the grand scheme of their Group C campaigns. South Korea can now look to what should be a straightforward group stage finale against India while the Socceroos will be happy to escape with a precious point, knowing all but a loss against Bahrain will be enough to see them through.

The relative likelihood of both teams' progression to the quarter-finals let the match exist in its own competitive context, with each side eager to match up against a fellow title favourite at such an early stage. The Socceroos remained unchanged from their 4-0 win over India, proving the theory that that match was something of a warm up for this, while South Korea welcomed Huang Jae-Won into the centre of defence in their only change, an enforced one due to Kwak Tae-Hwi's suspension in the 2-1 defeat of Bahrain.

As they had done against India, Australia looked to stretch the pitch wide in a formation nearing a 4-2-4 with Brett Holman and Brett Emerton pushing down the flanks. The Aussie tactic of crossing towards Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell at every opportunity was evident once more and it contrasted starkly with the Koreans' approach in the final third. Prompted by the peerless Park Ji-Sung, South Korea's attacking quartet in their 4-2-3-1 would create openings by interchanging, inventing angles and moving the ball with a speed and efficiency of touch that at times left their rivals satisfied to make a foul, simply because getting close enough to do so was an achievement in itself.

It was ironic, then, when the opening goal came through a rare route one ball from the Koreans, with Australia's otherwise reliable central defence switching off completely to let Ji Dong-Wong gain possession and cut back to an unmarked Koo Ja-Cheol, now the tournament's top scorer with three. Australia had their own first-half chances and the muscular and tireless right back Cha Du-Ri snuffed out one of the best with a timely toe in when Cahill was about to shoot, redeeming himself from a contentious aerial challenge earlier on the same striker that could have seen a penalty awarded to those in green and gold.

Holger Osieck injected Carl Valeri into midfield when Jason Culina limped off injured at half time as the match reached a pattern of Australian attack and Korean counter-punches. With more space to operate in and the likes of bulkily-built Mile Jedinak and Sasa Ognenovski to run at, it looked as though South Korea's lightning quick counter-attacks might provide the next goal. But it was the Socceroos, through a more expected source, who struck. Jedinak is the epitome of the contrast that defined this match, a monster of a midfielder who struggles to manoeuvre his frame at the same speed as his swift Asian opponents, but an indomitable force in the air among these foes. An Australian corner was flicked on by Cahill to Lucas Neill, who volleyed a hopeful ball towards the six-yard box where Jedinak rose like a skyscraper to send the ball home.

With Holman working in a more effective free role between the Korean lines, Australia looked a more threatening proposition but South Korea, sparked in the main by the eternally elusive Park and the overlapping Cha, also finished the match strongly. Further injuries to full-backs Luke Wilkshire and David Carney, who bravely completed the final minutes having had an apparent dislocated shoulder popped back into place, tempered the Socceroos and ultimately provided concerns for future matches. Australia possess the tournament's best goalkeeper and Mark Schwarzer played a fitting part in the match, saving superbly down to his right from Ki Sung-Yong late on.

Australia could be called the black sheep of the Asian Confederation, such is their unique identity amid this tournament of sharp, precise movers and effortless technique. Rather than trying to bridge the gap, German coach Osieck has decided to play to Australia's strengths with a direct attack and a reliance on the Socceroos' superior professionalism and discipline in the defensive half.

South Korea, on this evidence, have the team structure and individual weaponry to outplay most of their similar rivals but the Socceroos will arguably take more heart having proved their particular brand of football, while not the prettiest, contains difficult-to-counter threats that can keep the likes of South Korea in check.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Park Ji-Sung. In terms of vision and skill, the Manchester United man was head and shoulders clear of anyone else on the pitch. His dribbling drew a number of fouls and yellow cards out of the Australians - but that's only when they could catch him. One turn in the first half took two defenders out of the play in an instant and his powerful drive stung the palms of Schwarzer.

AUSTRALIA VERDICT: The defensively sound Socceroos aren't accustomed to going a goal down and the second careless lapse at the back in two games will be of concern to Osieck. However, Australia very rarely lose to Asian opponents and their superior mental attributes and world-class goalkeeper again conspired to help eke out a result. Australia may be outplayed on a technical level in Qatar but they can still find a way to win the continental crown.

SOUTH KOREA VERDICT: Cho Kwang-Rae's impressive side were in the ascendancy until Australia's equaliser rattled them. A lack of ruthlessness up front could be their only real criticism. Huang deputised well at the back, Cha contributed strongly at both ends and Park orchestrated the attack expertly. They play on a certain wavelength that puts them two steps ahead of an opposition even as resolute as the Aussies. A semi-final berth beckons.

COUNTING THE COST: Australian fans will be sweating on the injury news regarding Culina, Wilkshire and Carney. All three are automatic selections in this team and will be hard to replace if the diagnosis isn't favourable. Blackpool benchwarmer Carney has become custodian of the left-back role by virtue of a lack of competition and his absence, for that reason, could be the most painful if his shoulder is not in working order.

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