Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate
soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.
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Asian Cup - The knockout matches
Before the Asian Cup finals began, many pundits would have told you that
the four best teams in the competition would be Australia, Iran, Japan and
South Korea. All failed to reach the Final but we didn't know that would
happen before the quarter-finals began.
So we were treated to two heavyweight meetings early in the knockout stage
as South Korea's failure to win its group meant that it had to face Iran;
and Australia and Japan were able to meet - just a year after their epic
World Cup encounter - thanks to the Socceroos' poor early form in this
Australia and Japan met in Hanoi and, not surprisingly, cancelled each
other out in the first half. Japan had the better of possession but was
often happy just to hold on to it. Immediately after half time, the
Japanese nearly scored as a cracking Kengo Nakamura produced a smart save
from Mark Schwarzer. Australia continued to be on the back foot for much
of the next twenty minutes though Harry Kewell, on as a substitute, might
have had a case for a penalty at the other end (instead he was booked for
diving). Australia took the lead in the 69th minute when a corner managed
to evade everyone in the penalty box except John Aloisi. Nearly in line
with the back post, Aloisi scored with a real poacher's effort. The next
few minutes couldn't have been more disastrous for the Socceroos. First,
Mark Milligan, who'd been outstanding in defence since coming into the
side in its final group game against Thailand, made a complete hash of a
penalty box clearance allowing Naohiro Takahara to level the scores; then
Vince Grella was given a red card for hitting Takahara with his elbow when
challenging for a header.
Australia hung on until the final whistle and the score remained at 1-1 throughout extra time as well. Of course, with
an extra man, Japan dominated play but had to wait until the 120th minute
to create an excellent chance when only an outstanding Schwarzer save
prevented Shunsuke Nakamura scoring with a volley. Japan took a 2-0 lead
in the penalty shootout with Yoshi Kawaguchi saving from Harry Kewell and
Lucas Neill. When Yuichi Komano made it 3-1, Australia needed to score
twice and have Japan miss twice to survive. It nearly happened as
Takahara's penalty flew over the crossbar but Yuji Nakazawa made no
mistake and the Japanese celebrated a 4-3 shootout win.
Over in Malaysia, Iran and South Korea went the full distance as well when
120 minutes failed to produce a goal. This quarter-final wasn't the
greatest spectacle but the soggy conditions didn't help. In the 23rd
minute, with the Koreans having the better of the opening exchanges, Yeom
Ki-hun made a threatening run into the Iranian penalty box but simply lost
his footing. Seconds later, Lee Chun-soo could have scored when he
deflected Kim Sang-sik's shot but Hassan Rodbarian saved. Though the
Koreans then enjoyed a sustained period of pressure, Iran finished the
half with a flurry. First Korean 'keeper Lee Woon-jae narrowly beat Ali
Karimi to a ball in the box and then a Mehdi Mahdavikia shot was blocked
by a defender. The second half had more intensity but fewer chances and
not surprisingly the game went to extra time.
Neither side was particularly defensive - it's just that neither attacked effectively. Iran
had the best two chances in extra time. A well struck long-range shot from
Javad Nekounam missed narrowly and later Mahdavikia forced a smart save
from Lee Woon-jae. Unfortunately for Iran, Lee Woon-jae also saved
Mahdavikia's penalty in the shootout but Korea's advantage was short-lived
as substitute goalkeeper Vahid Talebloo (who had been brought on for the
shootout) saved from Kim Do-heon. But Lee Woon-jae then saved Iran's 4th
penalty (from Rasoul Khatibi) with his left foot allowing Kim Jung-woo to
score the winner. The Koreans advanced and another fancied team went home.
Vietnam was always facing a difficult task in its quarter-final against
Iraq in Bangkok and within two minutes the only remaining host nation
defended a free kick poorly and went a goal down. Star midfielder Nashat
Akram delivered the ball into the heart of the penalty area and Iraq's
influential captain Younis Mahmoud rose, unchallenged, to head the ball
into the back of the net. The Iraqis kept the pressure up throughout the
half and Akram could have made it 2-0 when he got on the end of a glorious
passing move but his shot, from a tight angle, hit the wrong side of the
net. Vietnam nearly produced an unlikely equaliser just before half time
but Iraqi substitute Ahmad Abid Ali cleared from Nguyen Vu Phong with
'keeper Noor Sabri beaten. Vu Phong forced Noor Sabri to parry a free kick
early in the second half but in the 65th minute yet another free kick
resulted in a 2nd goal for Iraq. This time Younis Mahmoud took it and
expertly bent the ball over the Vietnamese wall and away from 'keeper
Duong Hong Son. Mahmoud had a couple of chances for a hat-trick but the
final score would be 2-0. It was a deserved victory for Iraq but the
Vietnamese could bow out of the tournament with some pride.
If Iraq was a worthy winner of its quarter-final, Saudi Arabia could count
itself fortunate to advance from its encounter with Uzbekistan in
Indonesia. As well as hitting the frame of the Saudi goal no less than
five times, the luckless Uzbeks had a perfectly good goal disallowed when
they were 1-0 down. The opening goal came within three minutes as Yasser
Al Qahtani scored from a rebound after Uzbek 'keeper Ignatiy Nesterov
saved from Malek Maaz. Uzbek midfielder Server Djeparov nearly replied
immediately but, well, his shot hit the post. Uzbekistan continued to
pepper Saudi custodian Yasser Al Mosailem and, in the 28th minute, what
should have been a deserved equaliser was ruled out. After Al Mosailem
saved a Djeparov free kick, Maksim Shatskikh smashed the ball into the
back of the net. The Uzbek skipper was ludicrously ruled offside and, if
you've seen the footage, you might also think that the assistant referee
that raised his flag should never be allowed near an international
football match again.
Perhaps spurred by their good fortune, the Saudis
hit back and Al Qahtani could have scored when one-on-one with Nesterov.
After an action-packed first half, the pace might have slowed but
Uzbekistan continued its onslaught in the second half. The prominent
Djeparov crossed for Aziz Ibragimov but his header hit the bar. There was
always the risk that the Uzbeks would be exposed as they pressed forward
and in the 75th minute substitute Ahmed Al Mousa finished off a superb
move that involved Al Qahtani and Khaled Aziz. Still the Uzbeks weren't
done. In the 80th minute, Djeparov (of course) delivered a free kick and
Hayrulla Karimov's header hit the bar (of course). In a rare piece of
luck, however, the ball fell to substitute Pavel Solomin and he scored.
There was enough time for an equaliser and Alexander Geynrikh, also on as
a substitute nearly provided it. After turning a defender in the box,
Geynrikh shot and ... hit the post. So Saudi Arabia hung on for a 2-1 win
and the Uzbeks were eliminated. Sometimes there's no justice in football.
South Korea stayed in Malaysia for the semi-final and was joined by Iraq
in a match that was not too dissimilar from the quarter-final meeting
between the Koreans and Iran. Once again, the wet weather was unhelpful;
once again120 minutes produced no goals. The Koreans were the more
attacking team in the first half but they were able to create few chances.
After quarter of an hour, Iraq's Younis Mahmoud found the ball falling his
way in the box but he had to rush his effort and fired wide. It would be
the best chance of the opening 45 minutes which saw both sides attempting
to score through shots from distance.
South Korea pushed on in the second half but Iraq defended well and had a big chance on the hour when a Nashat
Akram free kick was driven straight to Hawar Mohammed. His deflection -
which could have gone anywhere - went straight to Korean 'keeper Lee
Woon-jae. Yeom Ki-hun then gave Iraqi 'keeper Noor Sabri a moment of
discomfort with a long-range free kick. The action continued at both ends
as Iraq's Mahdi Karim shot narrowly wide after making a fine run into the
box. Lee Chun-soo then had the best chance of the half after a rare
mistake in Iraq's defence presented him with the chance to volley home
from about eight yards. He shot wide and although he was on an angle the
Korean number 10 was all on his own. There was still enough time for both
teams to have more chances but Hawar Mohammed headed wide at one end and
Yeom Ki-hun hit a free kick straight to Sabri at the other. Lee Chun-soo
threatened again in extra time and forced Sabri into a fine save in the
Just before the first period of extra time ended, Hawar
Mohammed came even closer to breaking the deadlock after a terrible Lee
Woon-jae header gave him the chance to shoot from close range. He hit the
post; the ball ran along the goal line; and was cleared. The second period
of extra time saw Lee Chun-soo go close again with a direct free kick and
Hawar Mohammed had yet another chance but the game seemed destined to
finish goalless. It certainly wasn't the worst 0-0 draw you'll ever see.
With the penalty shootout locked at 3-3, Noor Sabri produced a save from
Yeom Ki-hun. Substitute Ahmed Mnajed then put the Iraqis ahead for the
first time and their progression to the Final was confirmed when Kim
Jung-woo's penalty hit the post.
Back in Hanoi, Japan and Saudi Arabia - who between them had won the last
six Asian Cups - met to see which might keep that run going. Japan
controlled much of the early play and, for half an hour, you could have
been forgiven for thinking that this would be a cagey affair. Other than
Saudi 'keeper Yasser Al Mosailem blocking Seiichiro Maki and a deflected
Yasser Al Qahtani shot being saved by Yoshi Kawaguchi, the first 35
minutes were unremarkable. But Al Qahtani then gave the Saudis the lead
with a poacher's goal. He was the quickest to react when a ball dropped
his way near the penalty spot after Japan failed to clear a free kick.
Once again, Japan struck back immediately. Yuji Nakazawa headed a corner
home from six metres but in truth Al Mosailem should have claimed it. A
Shunsuke Nakamura free kick went wide just before half time.
A pulsating second half had barely kicked off when Malek Maaz headed truly at the end
of a well worked Saudi move. Again Japan charged back and Al Mosailem did
well to save a sizzling Kengo Nakamura drive. But it would be 2-2 soon as
the Saudis again failed to clear a corner allowing Maki to head back to
Yuki Abe who scored with a glorious overhead kick - the type that would
have Peter Goldstein jumping out of his seat. Amazingly, the Saudis would
take the lead again just four minutes later as Maaz beat two defenders on
the edge of the penalty box and finished with the outside of his foot. 3-2
and still more than half an hour remained.
To their immense credit, the Japanese players simply don't know how to lie down. Naohiro Takahara
nearly scored another equaliser with a fabulous volley that missed by
centimetres (Al Mosailem was well beaten). In the 81st minute, Naotake
Hanyu, who had just come on as a substitute, smashed a long-range shot so
fiercely against the crossbar that it's probably still rattling now. Japan
threw everything into attack in the closing minutes (including goalkeeper
Kawaguchi) but Saudi Arabia hung on for a place in the Final.
Match for 3rd Place
It's not that the Koreans have been particularly defensive; and it's not
that they've lacked endeavour up forward. But, well, whatever they try in
attack seems not to work. So they treated us to a third consecutive
goalless draw and a third consecutive penalty shootout. And they finished
third in the tournament. Nearly seven hours of football involving South
Korea was played after its last goal in this tournament (Kim Jung-woo's
deflected winner against Indonesia in the group stage). The Koreans didn't
concede for even longer - more than seven and a half hours. After Oh
Beom-seok tried an early long-range shot for the goal-starved side, Japan
really should have scored at the other end in the 7th minute when a
glorious Shunsuke Nakamura chip gave Yashuhito Endo a one-on-one against
Korean 'keeper Lee Woon-jae but Endo's shot was lame.
A few minutes later, Endo was on target with a free kick and Lee Woon-jae needed to make an
uncomfortable save. After quarter of an hour, the Koreans tried yet
another shot from outside the box but this time Yeom Ki-hun missed
narrowly with a well-struck effort. A few minutes later the same player
forced Yoshi Kawaguchi into a save from a free kick. The Koreans were
enjoying a fine spell but their attacking was one-dimensional. Not long
before the break, Kawaguchi was in action again, this time blocking a Kim
Do-heon drive. But Lee Woon-jae also played his part in keeping the game
goalless when he made a courageous save from Yuji Nakazawa who shot from
close range. Ten minutes into the second half, Lee Chun-soo could have
opened the scoring for South Korea with a header from a corner but it
bounced and lobbed over the bar.
Within a minute, the Koreans were reduced to ten men as defender Kang Min-soo picked up a second yellow card. But
just as they couldn't find a winner with an extra man against Australia,
the Japanese couldn't take full advantage. Substitute Naotake Hanyu had a
great chance with a little more than a quarter of an hour remaining but
after some neat build up play, his shot was saved by Lee Woon-jae. Extra
time was all Japan and, within five minutes, Hisato Sato, another
substitute, shot wide. Just four minutes before the end of the second half
of extra time, a loose ball came to Hanyu again just six metres from goal
but, with the goal at his mercy, his powerful shot somehow only managed to
rebound off Korean defender Kim Chi-gon who was standing on the line.
There was enough time for one last chance for Sato but Lee Woon-jae was
clearly going to be Japan's nemesis on this day. The penalty shootout was
one of those rare ones in which both teams scored five out of five. With
the Koreans kicking first, Kim Chi-woo made it 6-5 and the next taker for
Japan was Naotake Hanyu. Poor Hanyu - two efforts that he should have
scored from during the game were saved. And so was his penalty.
The Saudi players must have gone to Jakarta knowing that the whole world
would be cheering for Iraq but, for a lot of reasons, Saudi Arabia is a
team I struggle to have much sympathy for (long story and I might explain
why in my next piece). Nevertheless even if we ignore the off-field
reasons for why an Iraqi triumph is a beautiful thing, the match was still
won by the team that played the better football throughout the 90 minutes.
The Iraqis made their intentions clear within minutes as Qusay Munir shot
narrowly wide with a left foot volley from outside the box. Then a fine
move ended with an overhead by Younis Mahmoud but Iraq's captain also
missed the target.
Just before the half hour mark, Karrar Jassim skilfully
left two defenders for dead after receiving a throw in near the corner
flag. But Jassim then had to shoot from a tight angle and Saudi 'keeper
Yasser Al Mosailem saved. Tempers flared in the 37th minute when Mahmoud
clashed with Saudi defender Waleed Jahdali and both players were shown the
yellow card. (Australian referee Mark Shield booked five players in a
physical first half.) Just before half time, the Saudis created their
first real chance when Yasser Al Qahtani made a fine run into the box but,
under pressure, his shot flew well over the bar. The Iraqis continued
attacking in the second half with long-range shots from Mahmoud and Munir.
The Saudis finally forced Iraqi 'keeper Noor Sabri into a fine save on the
hour when Taiseer Al Jassam shot well on the turn.
A couple of minutes later, Al Mosailem had to save twice as a speedy counterattack resulted in
a Mahmoud shot and then Nashat Akram followed up. Then Jassim had another
chance as he slid in at the back post to try to get on the end of a Hawar
Mohammed corner that had been flicked on by Mahdi Karim. Malek Maaz, the
Saudis' semi-final hero, was struggling to have an impact but he did
manage to fire a quick shot narrowly wide after some excellent ball
control. The Iraqis scored the goal they truly deserved in the 71st
minute. Another Hawar Mohammed corner found Mahmoud who was lurking beyond
the back post and, after Al Mosailem completely misjudged the situation,
the Iraqi captain made no mistake. It was nearly 2-0 five minutes later as
a brilliant pass from Nashat Akram (who was outstanding throughout) gave
Mahmoud a one-on-one with the Saudi 'keeper. This time Al Mosailem
prevailed. The Saudis only had one shot left in their locker - after a
rare error from Noor Sabri, Malek Maaz could have scored with a header.
But he headed the ball straight into the ground and it bounced just over
the crossbar and onto the roof of the net. The final score would be 1-0 to
Iraq. Sometimes there is justice in football.
The scenes of celebration that greeted the final whistle were
unforgettable. And in the days that followed them, I've tried to think of
sporting triumphs that have meant as much. There aren't many.
So the Asian Cup - a wonderful tournament - produced a wonderful story.
Stay tuned for some final thoughts.
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