SYDNEY (Reuters) - South Korea moved a step closer to burying their 55-year Asian Cup hoodoo when they grabbed a goal in each half to beat Iraq 2-0 on Monday and set up a final against Australia or United Arab Emirates.
Lee Jeong-hyeop gave the Taegeuk Warriors the lead with a 20th minute header and defender Kim Young-gwon lashed the second into the net five minutes after the break as the South Koreans reached the final for the first time since 1988.
Iraq, perhaps emotionally and physically drained by their dramatic quarter-final victory over Iran last week, played with plenty of passion but were unable to become the first side to breach the Korean defence in five matches in Australia.
Their hopes of another fairytale run to the title to match their 2007 triumph were washed away in the Sydney rain and it is twice champions South Korea who will return to Stadium Australia next Saturday in search of a first Asian Cup crown since 1960.
“This semi-final was crucial for us to get to the final, we know we have not won this competition for many years,” said South Korean midfielder Nam Tae-hee, who was named Man of the Match.
“All the players were together, firm and united, and that’s what gave us the win today.”
South Korea had looked the most likely to score in a cagey opening to the match with Son Heung-min, the two-goal hero of their quarter-final victory over Uzbekistan, drawing a fingertip save out of Jalal Hassan with a long-range effort.
A minute later and the Koreans were in front, Kim Jin-su curling a free kick into the box and Lee rising above the Iraqi defence to head down and into the net.
Iraq skipper Younis Mahmoud was making his presence felt up front but South Korea are not a side to be bullied at the back and he was more often than not battling alone in the first half.
The persistent rain that fell on Sydney all day was not able to dampen the spirits of a noisy crowd of just over 36,000, the South Koreans at one end with inflatable batons and the horde of Iraqis at the other accompanied by drums and whistles.
The Koreans had more to shout about but Iraq gave their supporters a lift with a flurry of attacks just before the break when winger Amjed Kalaf’s raking drive forced Kim Jin-hyeon to get down low to push the ball across his goal.
The South Korea goalkeeper gave the Iraqis the sniff of an equaliser when he rashly charged out of his area three minutes after halftime but another two minutes on and his team’s lead had been doubled.
The ball bounced around the area in an extended bout of aerial ping-pong from a Son corner before Lee Jeong-hyeop chested it down for Kim Young-gwon to hit it first time from the edge of the box past the despairing dive of Hassan.
Iraq were forced to press forward but clear-cut opportunities were still few and far between for them while Hassan had to be at his sharpest to deny long-range efforts from South Korean skipper Ki Sung-yueng and Son inside a minute.
Kalaf continued to cause problems with his pace on the right flank but there always seemed to be a South Korean foot or head to cut out the final ball and prevent a scoring chance.
“The players did a good job,” said Mahmoud. “My team has many young players and this was their first time (playing in a big tournament).”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly