Hosts Australia take on South Korea in the Asian Cup final on Saturday in a blockbuster clash between two of the region’s heavyweight teams.
The match pits the tournament’s most prolific attack against its meanest defence, with Australia looking to breach a Korean rearguard which has yet to concede a goal.
South Korea beat Australia 1-0 in the group stage but the result will count for little when they meet in front of 80,000 fans at 8:00 pm (0900 GMT) in Sydney.
Tens of thousands of Korean fans are expected at a sold-out Stadium Australia as the Taeguk Warriors look to end a title drought which stretches back to 1960.
Television shows have been rescheduled and the match will be broadcast live on two free-to-air channels as Asian Cup fever grows in South Korea.
The build-up in Australia, not traditionally a footballing nation, has been more measured and was disrupted by reports of opposition to the country’s membership of the Asian confederation.
But a home win could be hugely significant for thesport as football looks to challenge Australia’s more established rugby codes, Australian rules and cricket.
“I said the World Cup would be big, but I also said the Asian Cup would be even bigger and I don’t think people really knew what I was talking about at the time,” star forward Tim Cahill wrote in a Herald Sun column on Saturday.
“I’ve been fortunate to be the first ever goal-scorer for Australia in a World Cup and an Asian Cup and I’ve played in three World Cups, but this will be right up there as a massive team effort and as something the playing group has helped build with Ange Postecoglou.”
– Formidable unit –
Australia have 12 goals through 10 different scorers and coach Postecoglou said the Socceroos would not change their attacking philosophy for the final.
“It will be up to them to try to stop us scoring goals — we’ll just do what we’ve been doing,” said the coach. “It’s proven successful so far and we’ll continue to do that.
“There won’t be any secrets about how we go about it tomorrow,” he added. “We’ll take the game to our opponents and put pressure on them as we have in every game.”
South Korea won the first two Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960, when it was a round-robin event, but have yet to claim a third title despite reaching finals in 1972, 1980 and 1988.
As 2002 World Cup semi-finalists, South Korea’s frustrations at Asian level are a curious anomaly but Uli Stielike’s side have already exceeded the modest expectations their fans had before the tournament.
Their performance at last year’s World Cup was considered so humiliating that the players were pelted with toffee, a traditional Korean insult, when they arrived home from Brazil.
But Stielike, tasked with rebuilding the side, has quickly moulded a formidable unit which has weathered severe disruptions through injury and illness.
“We have a lot of young players, and it’s the first time they will be in a big final, a big event like this with 80,000 people so I don’t know what the reaction will be,” said the German.
“If we can play with calm and with conviction then we will have every possibility of winning the game — but this will be the main point, how strong our mentality is.”
Coach: Ange Postecoglou (AUS)
Captain: Mile Jedinak
Best Asian Cup result: Runners-up (2011)
World ranking: 100
The Socceroos can win their first Asian Cup title at only the third attempt after Ange Postecoglou successfully rebuilt the team after the disbanding of their “golden generation”. Break-out star Massimo Luongo, who plays in England’s third tier, leads the new wave although veteran Tim Cahill remains a key man with three goals so far in the tournament. Postecoglou took over in late 2013 and presided over an encouraging World Cup where Australia impressed in their 3-2 loss to the Netherlands. Captain Mile Jedinak provides steely leadership and German-based forwards Robbie Kruse and Mathew Leckie give pace and power up front. Club Brugge goalkeeper Mathew Ryan has also been a rock for the hosts in performances that have reportedly drawn interest from Liverpool. Postecoglou’s policy of rotation was criticised when the Socceroos lost 1-0 to South Korea in Group A, but it has also kept the players mainly fit and fresh ahead of one of the biggest matches in Australian football history.
Mathew Ryan; Ivan Franjic, Matthew Spiranovic, Trent Sainsbury, Jason Davidson; Massimo Luongo, Mile Jedinak (capt), Mark Milligan; Robbie Kruse, Tim Cahill, Mathew Leckie
Coach: Uli Stielike (GER)
Captain: Ki Sung-Yueng
Best Asian Cup result: Winners (1956, 1960)
World ranking: 69
Recently appointed coach Uli Stielike has led South Korea under the radar and into the Asian Cup final as they bid to end a 55-year wait for their third title. Despite injuries and illness, the Taeguk Warriors have made it all the way to the decider without conceding a goal, to the delight of their massed ranks of red-clad fans. Expectations were low after South Korea’s dismal World Cup when fans pelted players with toffee, a traditional and profane insult, on their return from Brazil last year. German former midfield rock Stielike was a surprise pick to refashion the squad and South Korea were unimpressive in their 1-0 opening Asian Cup win against Oman. Tournament-ending injuries to Lee Chung-Yong and Koo Ja-Cheol, and a flu bug which swept through the squad, caused serious disruption but the Koreans are hitting form and fitness at the right time. Captain and Swansea City midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng is the hub of the team and Bayer Leverkusen forward Son Heung-Min has pace to burn. But the revelation is Sangmu Phoenix striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop, plucked from relative obscurity by Stielike to score vital goals against Australia at the group stage and Iraq in the semi-finals. As the visiting side, the pressure is off the Koreans and they have already done enough to avoid the toffee treatment when they head back to Seoul.
Kim Jin-Hyeon; Cha Du-Ri, Kwak Tae-Hwi, Kim Young-Gwon, Kim Jin-Su; Park Joo-Ho, Ki Sung-Yueng (capt); Lee Keun-Ho, Nam Tae-Hee, Son Heung-Min; Lee Jeong-Hyeop
– Agence France-Presse