Strong defence makes South Korea Asian Cup final favourites
Melbourne, Jan 26 (IANS): Known throughout his playing days as "The Stopper", it's unsurprising to see how German Uli Stielike has managed to organise his South Korea team. It has been 578 minutes since South Korea last conceded a goal. In the midst of that run has been an Asian Cup campaign in which Stielike's side has a perfect defensive record, reports Xinhua.
Now, after a 2-0 victory over Iraq in the semi-finals, South Korea have the opportunity to complete a remarkable feat and win the Asian Cup without having their back four breached on a single occasion.It's a sequence made all the more impressive by the heavy rotations Stielike has made to his defence throughout the tournament.
Four centre-halfs have been used across their five matches thus far, two right backs and two goalkeepers. Only their left-back Kim Jin-Su has started every one of their games going into the final. Therefore, it was fitting that he set up Lee Jeong-Hyeop's early goal that ultimately went a long way to South Korea winning the match.
From game to game in the tournament, only between their final group match against Australia and their quarter-final against Uzbekistan has Stielike gone with an unchanged five-man unit at the back.Otherwise, rotations have been common, making their solidity and organisation a notable achievement.
If defensive structure is the sign of a tight-knit squad, South Korea are a team growing in stature with each passing match and one that might be hitting their peak at the perfect time.
Deficiencies in the forward line-up may remain. Prior to their semi-final victory, South Korea scored just five goals from their four matches in the tournament, the least of any team that progressed through the knock-out stages, including the teams that lost quarter-finals.However, Bayer Leverkusen forward Son Heung-Min is working his way into the tournament at a rapid rate and could prove their best weapon in the final.
As well as a well-taken brace in the quarters, Son stung the palms of Iraqi goalkeeper Jalal Hassan on a few occasions Monday night, as did captain and Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng.For Iraq, they were unable to summon the spirit of their 2007 side, which won the country's first ever major international crown.
On their way to Asian Cup success eight years ago, Iraq produced a remarkable upset victory over South Korea in the semi-finals. Following a goalless draw, two missed penalties from Yeom Ki-Hun and Kim Jung-Woo sent the Iraqis through to their first ever final.
Only 31-year-old veteran and current Iraq captain Younus Mahmood remains from that Asian Cup-winning side. But, despite a few creative touches in the early stages of the game, he was relatively well-manned by Kim Young-Gwon and Kwak Tae-Hwi.
Kim may have sealed the result for South Korea with just his second ever senior international goal, volleying home a scuffed, but precise effort from 20 yards five minutes after the interval, but more important was his desperate work in a defensive sense.
He, along with Kwak and full backs Kim and Cha Du-Ri threw their bodies in front of a stream of Iraqi shots throughout the second half, making countless blocks as they retained yet another clean sheet. The last time South Korea conceded a goal was Nov 18 last year, when Iran's Sardor Azmoun scored a late winner to resign Stielike's side to a 1-0 defeat.
Since, the South Korean custodian has not been forced to pick the ball out of their net. If that record can be retained for just another 90 minutes, the country will leave Australia with their third Asian Cup crown.