Korea, Japan meet again ― this time a trip to the final is at stake
In Asian soccer, there is no bigger game than South Korea versus Japan. It is a match that attracts the interest of fans around the world. The two rivals have been the leading teams on the continent for years and will get another chance to fight it out in Tuesday’s 2011 Asian Cup semifinal in Qatar.
It will be the fourth time that the two have met in the space of 12 months but the clash in Doha is different. This is a game with a place in the Asian Cup final at stake and is far removed from recent warm-ups and exhibitions played between the two. Outside of the World Cup, or of various club title challenges in Europe, it will not get bigger for these players.
Both Samurai Blue and Taeguk Warriors have been in good form in the tournament. Japan started slowly with a 1-1 tie with Jordan but soon slipped into gear with wins over Syria and Saudi Arabia in the group stage.
Korea manager Cho Kwang-rae (left) and Japan manager Alberto Zaccheroni (Yonhap News)
These earned a quarterfinal with host Qatar. In the best game of the competition so far, Japan came back from behind twice to win 3-2. It was a deserved victory for the three-time champion, even more so as it was reduced to ten men with a third of the match remaining.
The dismissal of defender Maya Yoshida and the ensuing free-kick goal that put Qatar 2-1 ahead put Japan on the verge of elimination but young midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who has been a revelation in Germany since joining Borussia Dortmund last summer, soon scored his second of the game and was instrumental in the third. With other European-based stars Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe in the line-up, Japan will pose Korea’s toughest test yet.
Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni arrived in the summer and the former AC Milan and Juventus boss is pleased with the fact that 10 goals in the previous three games are disproving a certain soccer stereotype.
“All over the world, people say that Italian coaches and managers are very defensive. They say that we kill our opponents’ strengths, but I showed that some Italian managers have a different style,” Zaccheroni said.
He added: “I’ve been telling the Japanese national team that we have to play with bravery and balance. That’s the concept. It doesn’t matter who you play against, we need to have the bravery to play the Japanese style of football.”
Despite the stellar midfield, there are weaknesses. Against Qatar the defense, so solid in South Africa last summer, was vulnerable to fast-paced Qatari counter-attacks. The two blue pillars at the back at the 2010 World Cup, Marcos Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa never made it to the Middle East and now replacement Yoshida is suspended.
It remains to be seen if Korea can exploit these chinks in the armor. Going forward, the Taeguk Warriors have been easy on the eye with fast passes causing problems for opponents. A tendency to over elaborate can be frustrating for fans but in the main, all are happy that such a young team has reached the semifinal playing an attractive brand of football.
That wasn’t quite the case against Iran in the quarterfinal ― not for the full 90 minutes at least. Korea controlled the first half without really creating any clear openings while the second period was much more even.
Both teams tired in extra time but after 105 minutes of play, substitute midfielder Yoon Bitgaram fired home a fine shot from the edge of the area to give his team a deserved win.
The two teams have a mutual respect and know each other well. Tuesday marks the fourth meeting in the space of 12 months. The first two took place in, or around, Tokyo in February and May respectively, both were comfortably won by Korea, 3-1 and 2-0. A friendly in October in Seoul ended goalless, but Japan in Zaccheroni’s second game had the better of proceedings against the new Korean boss Cho Kwang-rae in his third.
But Cho has already demonstrated that he can bounce back from friendly setbacks. Iran won 1-0 in Seoul in September but that team is now back in Tehran.
“The next match against Japan is one of the most crucial matches we are going to play,” Cho said.
“I agree that Japan has been getting better and better throughout the tournament in every aspect of the game.
“But I never get scared about the Japanese team, even when I was a player or as a coach, so I am not afraid of them.”
By John Duerden, Contributing writer (firstname.lastname@example.org