by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
It has been a bumpy ride, but the South Korean men’s national soccer team is entering the semifinals of the 2015 Asian Cup on a four-game win streak, during which it hasn’t conceded a single goal.
Korea scored just one goal in each of its three games in the group stages, but scraped through with 1-0 wins every time thanks to a combination of luck, desperate defending and goalkeeping heroics from Kim Jin-hyeon. Beating Oman and Kuwait were more difficult than expected, and although the gritty win over hosts Australia was plausible, the Koreans endured a lengthy spell of domination from their rivals. In the quarterfinals, Korea needed extra time to edge past Uzbekistan, a team it hasn’t lost to since 1994.
Aiming to win its first continental title in 55 years, Korea is set to face Iraq in the semifinals on Monday in Sydney. The winning team will then play against either Austrailia or UAE in the final match, which airs on Saturday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. PT.
Here are three things you should know about the Taegeuk Warriors as they prepare for the semifinals game.
1. Korea is playing without two of its key players.
Korea’s German head coach Uli Stielike has long made it clear that he considers five players on the current team as its nucleus–Son Heung-min, Ki Sung-yueng, Park Joo-ho, Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol. Unfortunately for Stielike, he will now have to lead Korea without two of those five players for the remainder of the tournament.
Right winger Lee has been ruled out after sustaining a hairline fracture in his right leg from a vicious tackle made by an Omani player during Korea’s first match. In addition, attacking midfielder Koo tore a ligament in his elbow after falling and landing on his arm in a game against Australia.
Players Nam Tae-hee and Han Kyo-won, will most likely have to step up to fill the void of Lee, the two-time World Cup veteran, and Koo, who captained Korea’s bronze medal team at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
2. With rivals Japan and Iran eliminated, the stars are now aligned for Korea.
Two weeks ago in a preview story about the Asian Cup, I mentioned that Korea would have to overcome Japan and Iran to complete its mission of winning the continental title for the first time since 1960. Things have just gotten a lot easier for Korea as both Japan and Iran were eliminated in the quarterfinals by Iraq and UAE, respectively.
After failing to beat Japan in nearly five years and Iran in four years, Korea is now left with Iraq in the semifinals, which seems to look favorable for the Korean team. If Korea manages to win the semifinals, then it will either face Australia, a team it has previously beaten, or UAE, which has only secured two wins against Korea in the last 19 head-to-head matchups.
3. As expected, Cha Du-ri is the difference maker.
I also predicted in the aforementioned preview article that the 34-year-old fullback Cha Du-ri may just be the X-factor if Korea finally wins the Asian title. Set to retire from international soccer after the Asian Cup, Cha’s speed on the right flank has lifted Korea in decisive moments.
Against Kuwait, Cha dribbled past two defenders from the right wing and picked out a perfect cross for Nam Tae-hee’s goal, clinching Korea’s berth in the quarterfinals. In the quarterfinals game versus Uzbekistan, Cha’s furious 60-yard run sparked a counterattack that Son Heung-min finished off to seal Korea’s 2-0 win.
Since the Uzbekistan game, a video of Bae Sung-jae, the play-by-play announcer for South Korean TV network SBS famously saying, “Why in the world did a player like this work as a broadcaster during the World Cup?” went viral among Korean soccer fans. Cha had worked alongside Bae in the broadcast booth as a color commentator during the 2014 World Cup after he was controversially dropped from Korea’s final roster. Bae’s viral comment sparked further criticism on former head coach Hong Myung-bo for excluding Cha from last summer’s roster.
South Korea will play against Iraq in the semifinals on Monday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. PT.
Featured photo courtesy of ESPNFC.com