Australia win landmark Asian Cup title
The Socceroos become first host nation winners since 1992 after extra time win over South Korea
Australia’s captain Mile Jedinak lifts the Asian Cup. (Photograph: Reuters/ Jason Reed)
The match proved to be a torrid, chaotic affair but the entertainment on offer was undeniable as Australia became the first host nation to become Asian champions since Japan in 1992.
It seemed Massimo Luongo was set to be the name etched indelibly into the annals of Australian sport with his goal on the stroke of half-time, only for Son Heung-min to restore parity a minute into injury time just as Australia could taste victory.
For Australia, the win and the performances over the past three weeks will help rebuild the Socceroos’ status in the national mindset after several years of regression.
The match also, of course, provided an opportunity for the Socceroos to collect their first major piece of silverware – four Oceania titles aside. Victory also means the Socceroos are the first men’s side to win more than one continental championship.
And while much had been made of Australia’s imperative to win in order to continue the game’s growth and create a milestone achievement, so too was there more at stake for South Korea than a mere trophy. It was a chance to set right a glaring anomaly. Asia’s most successful World Cup nation with eight successive qualifications, have somehow failed to win the Asian crown for 55 years.
Much like Australia’s 32 years of World Cup failure, this was a millstone around the neck.
History was against the Socceroos, who had failed to defeat South Korea in a competitive match since 1977, while the Taeguk Warriors had been unbeaten in their past 15 Asian Cup matches.
A berth at the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup was also on offer, and with it the chance to have an early taste of Russia ahead of the World Cup and earn some valuable competition.
But before the game, the focus was simply on 90 minutes.
Both sides were significantly changed from South Korea’s 1-0 win two weeks ago in Brisbane, a match Australia dominated.
Australia fullback Ivan Franjic was cleared to play despite limping through the final minutes of the semi-final win over the United Arab Emirates.
After 14 months of wholesale tinkering it seemed Postecoglou, with perfect timing, was happily settled on his line-up.
An excitable 76,385 crowd - swelled by a sizeable chunk of Korean fans and their interminable chants of “Dae-Han-Min-Gook” - played their part from the opening whistle.
The contest certainly opened in up-tempo, if slightly scrappy, fashion. South Korea, despite their slightly conservative reputation based around an unbreached defence in the preceding five games, pushed forward at every opportunity.
Australia typically sought to press high and attack constantly, as per Postecoglou’s mantra.
However, their midfield possession in the early stages was stymied in contrast to their five previous matches.
It was telling that the only early chance of the game came via a set-piece which captain Mile Jedinak deliciously curled onto the roof of the net, although Kim Jin-hyeon will claim he had it covered.
It wasn’t until the midway point of the half that there was an intake of breath from the home support as Kwak Tae-hwi pushed a near-post header wide, an opportunity he would usually convert.
Within seconds Tim Cahill was stinging the palms of Kim as he squeezed a yard of space from his marker and fired in a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
At the other end, star attacker Son volleyed inches wide of the top corner, in a moment reminiscent of Tadanari Lee’s winner for Japan in the final almost four years to the day.
Almost immediately, Son came close to scoring but his goal-bound shot was blocked by a desperate Luongo, with the midfielder finding energy that few others could have managed.
Suddenly, South Korea were in the ascendency, in a manner that was never the case in Brisbane a fortnight ago.
Jason Davidson collected a yellow card for a tug off the ball that must have been remarkably close to being inside the penalty area. However, Ki Sung-yueng’s under-hit free-kick was easy pickings for Mat Ryan despite the close proximity to goal.
Then came Luongo’s moment. A perfect shot from the edge of the penalty area continued a remarkable run for the Swindon Town midfielder. The only player from a third-tier league in the final now had more combined assists and goals than anyone in the tournament.
It was harsh on the Koreans who had created the better openings, even though they were inferior in the possession stakes.
Cahill and his big-game capability exited the stage in just the 63rd minute to be replaced by Tomi Juric. Then Robbie Kruse and Franjic exited in quick succession. It was perhaps no surprise, considering the pace and intensity of the second half was overwhelming at times, sometimes at the expense of controlled football.
South Korea pushed hard and a hectic unstructured contest held sway. It was amid such chaos that the Koreans bustled through a packed defence with Ki teeing up Son who finished coolly past Ryan a minute into injury time. It seemed the at-times tragic history of Australian football was about to see a new chapter written.
Surely Korea were in the ascendency now. The added 30 minutes continued in a similar vein with half-chances at both ends.
Only the match ten years ago against Uruguay could surpass this contest for knife-edge tension.
Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Australia were in front again. Just as was the case with Australia’s first goal the blow came on the stroke of the break.
Juric, with a mixture of brawn and skill, somehow forced his way past his marker and his low effort was only parried into the path of Troisi, who gleefully tucked away the loose ball.