Paul Marcuccitti

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 tournament.


    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 95th minute.

    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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