Thursday, July 26, 2007

West Asian Wonders

Asian Cup Semi Finals Wrap

Iraq 0 v South Korea 0 (Iraq won 4-2 on penalties)

FOR a 0-0 draw, this wasn't a bad game at all. South Korea, improving by the game, made most of the running, producing their best all-round performance, but ultimately their weakness was an inability to capitalise on their territorial and possessional domination. Right from the start, in heavy conditions, they were able to press Iraq high and pin them back, controlling the first half through their control of both flanks. Pim Verbeek made a number of surprise tactical selections, keeping one of his stars of the campaign, Kim Jung-woo (#17), in reserve, drafting in Yeom Ki-hun (#19) on the right flank and shifting the adaptable Lee Chun-soo (#10) into the middle, behind Cho Jae-jin (#9). In midfield, Son Dae-ho (#20) was given the marking role of Iraq's playmaker, Nashat Akram. Verbeek's moves were brilliant, allowing the Koreans to control most of the match, Ki-hun turning on a man of the match performance to give the hitherto exemplary Iraq left back Bassim Abbas a working over. With Seongnam's Choi Sung-kuk (#7) combining well with left back Kim Chi-woo (#15), Korea were dominating both flanks. Chun-soo, meanwhile, was looking more a threat through the middle than he has been out wide, while Dae-ho didn't give Akram a sniff. But the Koreans, for all their control, were unable to crack the brilliant Iraqi defence, lead superbly by Jassim Gholam (#2), who followed Jae-jin everywhere he went. His central defensive mate, Ali Rehema (#15), wasn't too far behind, looking after Chun-soo. Abbas and right back Haider Hussain (#14), worked over early, never gave up, sticking to their work with real spirit and zest. All the time they were screened superbly by holding midfielder Qusay Munir (#24). While Akram was off his game, Qusay was the midfield king, winning and using the ball with equal efficiency. While Korea looked blunt at the pointy end, Iraq offered real bite in Younis Mahmoud, who looked a threat every time he got the ball, despite the limited service and the close attentions of the impressive youngster Kang Min-soo (#22). The #13, Karrar Jassem, was everywhere, fouling and frustrating the Koreans. As the game went on and the Koreans failed to open the door, heads started to drop and legs became heavier, encouring the fresher Iraqis to come home strong. It was an almighty effort. The tragedy for Korea is that two of the heros, Ki-hun and Jung-woo, failed from the spot, but there was no denying the hunger, desire and destiny of Iraq. Coach Jorvan Vieira, in the job for a couple of months, has done an oustanding job and the players have responded. Just a wonderful story.

Saudi Arabia 3 v Japan 2

WHILE there was strong belief that Iraq could do the job for western Asia, there was less optimism about Saudi Arabia's prospects against Japan, going for their third straight title. The Saudi's had looked porous in the quarter final win over the Uzbeks, and while they packed two dynamites up front, surely the Japanese would be too strong after shaking off the Socceroos. Not on your life. Clearly the Saudi's had learnt a thing or two from the Roos about how to play Japan; defend deep and look to counter with real purpose. Only difference between the Saudis and Australia was that the Saudis could actually counter with real pace, numbers and skill, especially through liverwires Yasser Al Qahtani and Malek Maaz, both so impressive throughout the tournament. The surprise was how well the Saudis defended, despite the liability that was Yasser Al Mosailem in goal, a far cry from Saudi great Mohamed Al Deayea. Japan's problem, so evident against Australia and even earlier in the tournament was that they were so one paced, only snapping into gear when they went behind. Here they played right into Helios dos Anjos's hands, leaving massive space between the midfield and defence for Yasser Al Qahtani and Maaz to utilise. It was an invitation they were only too ready to accept, Maaz in particular giving Yuki Abe a complete working over. While he showed customary elavation and aerial ability for his first, his second was a gem, burning Abe and the equally poor Kawaguchi. Like the Socceroos earlier in the tournament, perhaps Japan had been guilty of underestimating the opposition and believing the speculation that they were home and hosed. When quizzed about Saudi Arabia's men-to-watch in the lead-up, the disappointing Shunsuke Nakamura could only mention "the number 20" - he was talking about Yasser Al Qahtani. What motivation for the others. While Maaz was the man, right back Ahmad Al Bahri (#15) was awesome, setting up the second and blunting Komano, holding midfielder Saud Khariri (#14) ran all day and just in front of him #17 Taiseer Al Jassam has been a creative influence. Japan coach Ivica Osim must shoulder much of the blame, rarely asking enough questions of the Saudi keeper and central defenders. The Saudis wanted it more and deserved their win, despite the post coming to their rescue yet again.

It creates the unlikeliest of finals, two West Asian wonders full of quality, good management and plenty of desire. Andy Harper and Paul Trimboli, in the Fox studio, were spot on in their assessment; both Iraq and Saudi Arabia packed more improvisation and match-winning quality in and around the opposition box than their organised East Asian opponents.


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