The Asian Cup nears it's culmination this week as the Semi-Finals and Finals are played. Traditional powers contested one semi, Japan and South Korea; while two of the region's newer tyros are to fight out the second - still new-to-region Australia and the wealthy Uzbekistan, their FFA's pockets filled by natural resource money. This morning's first semi-final had the Blue Samurai progressing on penalties after a goal each in extra time - South Korea levelled right on 120 minutes. The shootout a bit anticlimactic as none of the first three South Koreans converted their spot-kicks.
The Uzbeks got here by defeating Jordan in the Quarter-Finals while Australia have been troubled only rarely in the tournament so far but needed extra time to beat Iraq in the round previous. While we talk about this year's Asian Cup, I'll intersperse it with what's happening in Qatar.
Kick off. No surprises in the Australia lineup. Honestly don't know enough about the Uzbeks to say if their team has any major changes.
There's no coincidence that it's these four in the Semi-Finals. The leagues in Japan, Korea and Australia, while unable to compete for cash with the excessively wealthy Arabic and Emirati leagues, so don't have necessarily the most high-end talent but rather deepest leagues from top team to bottom.
GOOAALLL! Harry Kewell, you little beauty! After only five minutes, what a way to start! Played in beautifully by David Carney, he slots it low to the left of the Uzbek goalie Juraev. Silky smooth, just as you'd expect of a player with his talents. He scored the winner in the quarter-final too - repaying the Australian nation's public with his performances.
The South Koreans have been led by the usual suspects - Park Ji-Sung and striker Koo Ja-Cheol who scored in all their group games. For Japan it's been Dortmund's Shiniji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda fronting their attack. For the Uzbeks, well, who knows? Almost their entire squad plays at home in the petro-funded Uzbek league.
Like against Iraq in the 2007 Asian Cup Finals, Australia are bossing any physical encounters only to be outmanoeuvred by their lighter-footed opponents. Younis Mahmoud was just outstanding that day, today it seems to be the stupendously named Ulugbek Bakaev.
Australia have been led by another old stager - Harry Kewell. A figure who prompts both derision and admiration back home, the average Aussie is certain Kewell's our most gifted footballer ever. Sadly though, Harry's struggled to repay his country on the largest stages as injury robbed him of his physical gifts and a possible lack of desire means he's turned out for the 'Roos less than we'd like.
Unusually Wilkshire's been beaten for pace a few times on the right and has fouled his man in dangerous positions. It's Uzbek captain Server Djeparov and defender Viktor Kaprenko causing the problems.
Kewell's only turned it on for the Green and Gold army early on where he scored home and away against Iran in the World Cup Playoffs 1997. Then and his memorable goal in the 2006 World Cup. Aside from that, his time in the national setup has been largely disappointing and for the most part nonexistent. Since he joined Galatasary he's been somewhat revitalised . Perhaps Australia's most famous footballing export and his Golden Generation comrades may yet win a trophy to back up all the hype over the years.
Ognenovski, too. What a player, it's probably Pim Verbeek's largest legacy that he decided time and again against picking this guy. From a set piece, headed by Cahill (who else?) into the path of the big man who calmly finished it off. Kisses all round - teammates, wedding band alike. 35min in.
Uzbekistan's more famous footballing moments of late have been high-profile mistakes, really. Aside from the goal that wasn't at the Asian Games in November - their keeper was almost as palpably culpable as the immortal Khalfan Fahad - Uzbekistan football last hit the headlines when their largest club Bunyudkor, one of the Asian Champions' League's usual suspects employed Big Phil, Luis Felipe Scolari ...
Geez, that was close. Carney chests down to Schwarzer in the box with an Uzbek striker not far away. Carney going forward is a great threat for Australia. Carney defending is also a great threat for Australia, and not in a good way.
... As I was saying, Bunyudkor must've paid through the nose for Big Phil, who then promptly brought Rivaldo to the club. They played one Champions' League game in Adelaide and lost, Rivaldo was still there but Big Phil had gone back to Brazil by then. Rivaldo's back there now, too.
One minute of extra time in the first half. Uzbekistan creates down the left again - Wilkshire's man, strange, he's usually the best of our defenders - and the cross finds an open man at the top of the box. His drive goes well wide though.
Ready to go in the second half.
Oooh, that was a real cahnce for Harry. Long through ball from Matt McKay, right on the money and Kewell didn't control it to his satisfaction, cleared for a coner, which Australia wins the header and it goes wide. They've really got the best of the air.
Taking a glance through the stats at half time and you've got to feel for Walid Abbas of the UAE. He managed to score two own goals in one tournament which could be some sort of record. The UAE only managed three games too. The goalscorers are interesting, South Korea's Koo Ja-Cheol and Bahrain's Ismael Abdullatif have four, and Our Harry has three, crucial ones too.
Looks like a sub's going to come on for Australia, 22yo Robbie Kruse of the Melbourne Victory seems to be warming up. Maybe coach Holger Osieck wants to keep Cahill or Kewell fresh for the final if we make it. Neither have a card so it's not to ensure discipline. Turns out Harry Kewell's coming off for the in-form Victory striker.
The Asian Champions League and Asian Cup really seems to have benefited from Australia's involvement. I don't think the smaller nations are necessarily going to lose out by having anthoer top-30 ranked team ....
Really nice move by Kruse - wrong-foots a defender from the left and challenges the goalkeeper with a fizzing shot. Uzbekistan have made a substitution, with Hasanov coming off for Bikmaev.
Anyway, I think Australia involved in Asia adds to the lustre and considering this tournament was won by war-torn Iraq last time and Uzbekistan have made it to the semis this time around there shouldn't be too much of a debate about the detrimental effects to smaller nations. Both countries have good footballing traditions but lesser repute.
Holger Osieck is up off the bench now, chatting to the referee. There really have been some dubious calls go against Australia. A little bit too much razzle-dazzle attempted by the Uzbeks as their buildup work is shorted out by Australian defenders.
Another Uzbek substitution now as Tursinov is sent on by coach Vadim Abramov.
Abramov, who sports the archetypal Eastern European mullet and simply enormous 'tache which makes him look the spitting image of the Paddle Pop Lion.
Australia are doing better now, controlling possession well as Kruse and Cahill hold the ball up well. Emerton on now for Holman as Bikmaev's free kick deflects off the wall for a corner. The Uzbeks really are going down very easily - they're aware the Aussies have a reputation for physical play and as such may be trying to exploit any preconceived ideas the referees may have.
What is a strength for Australia in Asia can also be a weakness. Typically our defenders are big strong strapping types - Craig Moore and Ognenovski are perfect examples - who are able to mix it up in the box and also...
Good looking movement ... Carney SCORES!!!! 3-0 Australia, we're going to the Asian Cup Final!! Carney received it from Matt McKay - an A-League guy who's played extremely well today - down the left as he nutmegs the goalkeeper. Tim Cahill signalling to the bench, he may be done for the day. Great play by no. 9, going around four Australian defenders only to shoot straight at Schwarzer. Ognenovski and Bakaev get into it -
And Bakaev picks up his second yellow! He's off! Clattered Luke Wilkshire - horrible tackle. Coach Abramov looks distinctly unimpressed.
Yeah, Aussie defenders - and midfielders too, to be honest - tend to physically dominate Asian midfields because Indonesian and (great chance goes begging as Cahill beats three, crosses to a beautifully-positioned Kruse who takes one touch too many and scuffs his shot into the keeper) Thai squads don't have the muscle to compete in the contest. It also, however, means that when exposed to the low-centre-of-gravity dribblers of which Asian has a multitude, they can be wound in circles.
Karpamov off for Ibragimamov; Leeds United's Neil Kilkenny - the perpetual Next Big Thing of Australian football - on for Tim Cahill. Another forward thrust by the Socceroos, they're really starting to put the foot on the throat. Emerton gets the ball from Kruse and the Uzbek keeper saves.
Still on the size differential, that inability to deal with the tricksters could be the reason that a right-back, Lucas Neill, has been our most effective centre-half for half a decade. It's probably also that the former Soviet Republics are a much easier proposition for Australia because their lienups have a little more si ... -
GOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLL! Robbie Kruse finds Brett Emerton and surely Australia can't be stopped. Long ball from Wilkshire to Kruse who beat the last defender for pace, got inside the area and squared it for Emerton who finished under pressure. Kruse has looked really good)
... size. The Uzbeks are big, physically impressive players up front and down back, who, though while creative aren't of the same agility as a Honda or Kagawa of Japan.
Australia are starting to exploit a tired Uzbek side. Golden Chance as it's a 4 on 2 fast break and Kruse, searching for his first international goal, has his shot saved by the keeper. With quite a bit of time to go, this could get ugly for the Uzbeks. They're not at the races so far this half and have been sliced open time and again by Kruse, Kewell, Cahill and the like.
Australia's chief concern now has to be preserving discipline and ensuring they don't lose any players for a Japan side against whom the Socceroos have only a middling record. Since the 2006 World Cup match where we came back to win 3-1 in the last fifteen minutes, I've been hooked on football, so this game will have some special significance. We lost (on penalties I think) against them in the 2007 Asian Cup so there's a little bit of major tournament rivalry going on between the two. Add to that a few of Australia's best play in the J-League and we could have a real hum-dinger of a final on Sunday.
GOOOOAAAALL!! Valeri this time, after great build up and hustle from the Australians. Abramov has resigned himself to taking this pantsing as the Uzbeks couldn't clear the ball, Kruse flicks it on with delicious skills to Matt McKay, who crosses for Valeri in the centre of the penalty box who slams it home. Emphatic performance by the Socceroos.
ANOTHER ONE!!!!!! GOOOOALLL! Kruse this time, as he takes the ball from the kick off, skirts four defenders, proceeds to the edge of the area and fires it past the hapless Uzbek keeper Juraev. 6-0!!! He deserves that, he's been brilliant since coming on and his teammates tell him so. Mark Schwarzer has even come up from goal to congratulate him. Perhaps one of the most celebrated sixth goals ever, they're happy for the lad.
Abramov looks like he's been told he has only days to live. He's already at stage 5 of the seven stages of grief by now.
Uzbekistan muster one final attack and Tursunov's attempt is deflected over by Schwarzer. The corner and it's re-take is cleared. Uzbekistan has barely approached their penalty area this half, it's been a dominant Socceroo performance. Three minutes of added time and it can't go quickly enough for the luckless Uzbeks, who talk in defence about as often as Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie do now.
As good as this performance has been by the Aussies, the Uzbeks really have dropped their heads here in the second half.
WHISTLE! Aurelio Vidmar congratulates Holger Osieck as the German makes the rounds of his players. Uzbekistan will have to regroup in the most startling way and cope without their best striker Bakaev on Saturday when they take on South Korea for third place. I'd back them to play much better than they did here today - after half time they were insipid.
Australia v. Japan? Well, a different story. Japan may have "played their final already" with today's penalty victory against their arch-rival, where Australia may have wanted a more thorough hit out before such a big match which easily rates as one of the largest in our history. No injuries, no suspensions it seems and only a fool would underestimate the Japanese on Sunday.
It was good to see that it was younger guys like Matt McKay and Robbie Kruse who led the team with Kewell rather than the guys we've relied on in the past like Luke Wilkshire, Lucas Neill and Tim Cahill. Bring on Sunday's final!