January 31, 2024

Socceroos to face South Korea after dramatic Asian Cup knockout clash

By Vince Rugari
Updated January 31, 2024 — 11.55amfirst published at 7.47am
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For all the hand-wringing about the way they’ve been playing (most of it justified), this Asian Cup has opened up beautifully for the Socceroos. And that’s not just hope talking. Even Opta agrees, installing Graham Arnold’s men as outright favourites to win it, giving them a 21.1 per cent chance to lift the trophy from here. If they win their next game, they’ll only have to get past Jordan or Tajikistan to reach the final – and on the other side of the bracket, no team is firing on all cylinders.

You might say it’s all coming up Arnie.

But first, there is the small matter of South Korea, who notched a thrilling 4-2 penalty shootout victory over Saudi Arabia on Wednesday morning (AEDT) in the round of 16. They needed a goal in the ninth minute of stoppage time to snatch a 1-1 draw and stay alive in the tournament. It sets up a massive quarter-final on Saturday (2.30am AEDT) – by far the biggest match Australia has played in since the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. On the evidence seen so far, they have nothing to fear.

Here are four reasons why the Socceroos can get the job done against the Taegeuk Warriors.

Their opponents will be exhausted

The Socceroos finished top of Group B. South Korea finished second in Group E. The benefits of winning the group are now clear: Arnold’s men have the advantage of two full days’ rest more than their next opponents, while the South Koreans get just two days to recover from their 120-minute battle before fronting up again.

South Korea celebrate after the penalty shootout win over Saudi Arabia.Credit: Getty

Their two best players, Tottenham Hotspur skipper Son Heung-min and Paris Saint-Germain star Lee Kang-in, have played every minute of every match so far. Along with Seol Young-woo, Kim Min-jae, Hwang In-beom and Lee Jae-sung, that makes six Korean outfielders to have logged over 300 minutes. Only four Australians have done that, while there are also zero injury concerns for Arnold, with Mitch Duke, Craig Goodwin and Gethin Jones all cleared of various niggles.

This is the price South Korea coach Juergen Klinsmann admits they’ve had to pay for not doing better in the group stage, and in a tournament as even as this one, the difference could be telling.


This match should suit ‘Arnieball’

Arnold has faced criticism for Australia’s ineffective attack and lack of midfield functionality, and it seems to be bothering him but those issues, while unresolved, don’t really apply for this match. It’s only when facing a lower-ranked team who sit back in a deep defensive block that the Socceroos struggle to get going. South Korea probably won’t do that. Klinsmann, too, is being hammered for their rather blunt approach in the final third, which is less excusable when you consider the high level of their players in club football compared to Australia’s squad of battlers, who mostly ply their trade in second and third-tier European leagues.

Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold.Credit: Getty

Korea had 58 per cent of possession against Saudi Arabia. If, as expected, they again have most of the ball in the quarter-final, that puts the Socceroos in comfortable territory: they can go back to the game model that worked so well for them at the World Cup, a careful balance of counterattacking pragmatism and front-foot pressing.

They still need to do better with their passing, and limit the needless turnovers which went unpunished in their earlier matches, because a team like Korea could make them pay with a single attack. But all things considered, this is the sort of match where Arnold’s Socceroos do their best work.

Korea’s coach is incredibly unpopular

Camp Socceroo appears to be a happy place, as always. It is hard to know what to make of Camp South Korea. There is widespread concern in Korean football that they are wasting their current ‘golden generation’ of players, easily the most talented in their national team’s history. Many fans believe Klinsmann is tactically not the right fit and are displeased at how little time he has spent in Korea since taking on the job, and therefore question to what extent he trusts Korean-based players. The view is that they are winning games in spite of him, not because of him.

South Korea’s Tottenham star Son Heung-Min.Credit: Getty

Consider, too, the pre-tournament views of Son Heung-min’s father, who said it would be better for the future of Korean football if they failed at this Asian Cup because losing might wake their federation up, and if they won it, the game’s decision-makers would be fooled into thinking everything is rosy. If that’s what he reckons, it’s not a stretch to think the squad might share the same view.

Then again, in the same interview he did insist that to him, his son was still not a “world-class” player, so maybe he’s an extremely hard marker.

History is on Australia’s side


While the Socceroos have not won either of their two most recent clashes with South Korea – a 1-1 draw in November 2018, and a 1-0 loss in June 2019 – they were both friendlies, so we can conveniently forget about them. When it comes to actual competitive matches, with something real at stake, the Aussies have a very strong record.

Only once in the last 23 years have they lost to Korea in a meaningful contest, and that was the third match in the group stage of the 2015 Asian Cup, when both teams were already through to the knockouts and then-coach Ange Postecoglou shuffled his team accordingly. We all know what happened after that: they met again in the final, and the Socceroos prevailed 2-1 in extra time to secure Australia’s greatest achievement in men’s football. Since arriving at Tottenham Hotspur, it appears Postecoglou has wasted no opportunity to remind Son of that result and rub it in a little. Let’s hope it’s still in his head come kick-off on Saturday morning.

Watch every match of the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League on Stan Sport. All the action streaming ad-free, live and on demand, with select matches in 4K UHD.

Vince Rugari is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter or email.


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