South Korean midfielder Yeom Ki-hun dribbles around an Iranian defender in an Asian Cup qualifying match at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday. / Yonhap
By Kim Tong-hyung
With injuries wiping out nearly half of his starting lineup, South Korean manager Pim Verbeek couldn't seem to buy any luck going into the Asian Cup. Once the tournament began, however, fate has been nothing but generous.
Despite putting together four uninspiring performances in a row, the Koreans find themselves just a win away from the finals with a surging Iraq becoming the last roadblock Wednesday at Kuala Lumpur's Bukit Jalil Stadium.
The other semifinal clash involves Japan and Saudi Arabia, arguably the two best teams left in the tournament.
Verbeek would hope his team to find their form against the underdog Iraqis, especially with the possibilities of a Korea-Japan final, which would add another chapter to perhaps the fiercest rivalry in Asian sports, becoming real.
Although playing as sloppy as the rain-drenched pitch at Bukit Jalil Stadium, the Koreans ended up edging Iran 4-2 on penalties after a grueling 0-0 draw, with veteran goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae, one of the few players left from the glorified 2002 World Cup squad, bailing out his colleagues once again.
It was an ugly win that Verbeek would gladly take.
``Organization wise, I think we did very well defensively and I am just very glad to be going to the semifinals,'' said Verbeek, whose team survived squandering early leads to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and reached the knockout stages on an unconvincing 1-0 win over co-hosts Indonesia.
``The players have done well, but we have still won nothing yet. We have to go to the final and then try to win the Cup,'' he said.
Korea enters its semifinal match as the favorites but Iraq has enough talent to be the offensive juggernaut to knockoff the Taeguek Warriors from their ride of luck.
If there is one player who raised his stock the most in this year's tournament, it could likely be Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud, whose three goals match Korea's total offensive output after four games.
Mahmoud, who plays for Qatar's Al Gharafa, presents a rare combination of size, athleticism and skill, and his play seems to be peaking at a perfect time for his team.
Ironically, Mahmound's most impressive performance in the tournament may have been from a game he didn't score in _ Iraq's 3-1 hammering of Australia in the group stages. The Australians had no answer for the 1.86-meter striker with Brazilian footwork and quickness, as he penetrated their box with ease to draw extra defenders and open up goal scoring chances for his teammates. He also showed good knowledge in using his size to win the ball in air and manipulate defenders in set-piece chances.
If Mahmoud managed to rise to the occasion against an Aussie defense orchestrated by West Ham United standout Lucas Neill, there isn't much of a chance he would fear going up against the Korean duo of Kim Jin-kyu and Kang Min-soo, who both have been inconstant in their roles of anchoring Verbeek's four-back line.
Iraq also has creative midfielders in Hawar Mohammed and Nashat Akram, and big, strong defenders such as Haidar Abdul Amer and Jassim Gholam are aerial threats in set-piece situations.
Perhaps Verbeek would love to pull up a ``Celtic Pride'' and kidnap Mahmoud to have him miss the semifinals game purely out of jealously, as his own strikers can't seem to kick the ball into the ocean now.
Lee Dong-gook, Asian Cup's second all-time scorer with 10 goals, seems to be suffering a total meltdown in the tournament. A player once praised for his quick decision-making and creative touch in front of the net, the Middlesbrough forward has been wandering the pitch with a deer-in-the-headlights look and a disturbing lack of urgency.
Cho Jae-jin is likely to be the starter against Iraq, as a struggling Lee was yanked out after the first-half in the Iran match, but the Shimizu S-Pulse striker has yet to prove he has a nose for the net.
Lee and Cho's struggles are clearly the biggest concern for the team as Verbeek is likely to throw them out as lone strikers, with an enlarged midfield covering for an inexperienced defensive unit.
The forwards would have to be more clinical on the chances they get, as goal opportunities won't come frequently with the rest of their teammates playing behind the ball for long stretches. Without them breaking out of their funk, a defensive miscue or two could cost the game against Iraq.
``We know about the criticism we are getting from the media for our inability to score. I talk a lot about that with Lee Dong-gook and Woo Sung-yong,'' said Cho.
``I believe we have two games left and still enough time for us to redeem ourselves. The lone striker needs to score in crucial times and I am confident I would be the one ripping the net,'' he said.
Korea beat Iraq 3-0 in a friendly last month as the teams geared up for the Asian Cup. However, Cho says this is not the same Iraq team that was blanked at the game on Jeju Island.
``It's is a totally different team in terms of chemistry as they now have a settled roster. It would definitely be a more difficult match this time,'' he said.
Fitness could be another problem for the Koreans, who labored for two hours in heavy rain against Iran. It seemed clear near the end that the players _ especially ``energy guys'' such as winger Lee Chun-soo and left-back Kim Chi-woo _ did not have the same legs.
``I'm worried about the fact that we played 120 minutes tonight,'' said Verbeek after the Iran match.
``We have only three days rest to bring the players physically and mentally back, and there will be no time for training sessions,'' he said.