By Tom Danicek
So we finally got ourselves the first 2015 Asian Cup draw, technically. We had to wait up until the 104th minute and Son Heung-min’s premiere strike in Australia for the first goal of the first quarter final match.
Having overseen an incredible portion of 22 goals in the competition’s previous five matches, the Melbourne’s tournament farewell didn’t exactly follow the pattern then, but it was still an eventful affair.
Akhmedov’s injury a true game-changer
The iconic Server Djeparov once again wasn’t part of the Uzbekistan starting line-up, which meant at least one thing: Odil Akhmedov wore the captain’s armband for the second time in a row. Initially.
With the Krasnodar midfielder on the field, Uzbekistan pressed aggressively and looked dangerous in attack, as Akhmedov himself whipped in one fine cross and generally supported the offence with some purposeful passing.
Also, it was no coincidence that all Korean superiority in terms of ball possession didn’t seem to be of any real use early on. Ki Sung-yueng, for example, completed an impressive number of 40 passes inside 35 minutes, but hardly any of them were actually forward passes since the Uzbek defensive block was very well coordinated.
This all more or less vanished as soon as Akhmedov picked up a knock after the opening third of the match, though. Uzbekistan then dropped significantly deeper, turned into a passive side – and the balance, which Akhmedov provided so naturally in the last two appearances at the tournament, was pretty much gone in the glimpse of an eye.
Both fullbacks key for South Korea
Now it’s definite: Cha Du-ri is immortal and he has probably one more Asian Cup in him!
The 34-year-old veteran assisted on the second Korean goal via his trademark powerful run down the right-hand side, and he was a constant threat in extra time generally.
Credit Uli Stielike for his flourishing as well, though, as the German coach was smart enough to save Cha Du-ri for the late stages and allowed him to run at a tired Denisov – instead of putting him into the starting eleven.
Kim Jin-su, on the other side, didn’t require any special treatment to become my personal favourite for a Man of the Match award. Because, you see, this guy is just a natural. He’s resilient, he drives forward with his eyes wide open (see his assist on the 1st goal), his acceleration is immense and he lunges into tackles efficiently.
At one point in this encounter, Kim Jin-su even decided to demonstrate all these attributes at once; in truly impressive fashion. He won the ball through a precise sliding tackle right in front of the Korean penalty area, immediately rose on his feet, started running forward – and won a foul.
In the end, Kim finished the game with five tackles to his name (the next best across the Korean defensive line was one), a shot on target and two fouls suffered as opposed to none conceded. If this isn’t an impressive quarter-final performance for a 22-year-old guy, then what is?
Stielike has eventually found the right centre-back pairing
Right at the beginning, I have to say I’d certainly have some objections to Kwak Tae-hwi being voted as the official Man of the Match.
After all, even a few Uzbeks looked to be somehow more important to their side than Kwak was to Korea – namely the tough centre-back Anzur Ismailov or the skillful winger Sardor Rashidov, who accounted for almost all danger coming from The White Wolves.
But honestly, Uli Stielike has no reason whatsoever to care about any of this, as he got everything he could’ve wished for from the experienced Al-Hilal defender.
Kwak Tae-hwi didn’t seem to be error prone, an upgrade to Jang Hyun-soo by itself, and he kept things simple in any situation. Which came in handy especially with the expansive, and this time around utterly reliable, Kim Young-gwon alongside him.
Ultimately, we are witnessing a pretty ironic turn of events here. Assuming Uli Stielike sticks with this tandem for the rest of the Cup, that would mean his initial 1st & 2nd-choice centre backs are now benched for good.
Tell me… isn’t that genius?
Nesterov back at his best
While getting a slightly unexpected nod ahead of Eldorbek Suyunov for the opener, the veteran goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov didn’t quite convince anybody throughout the whole group stage that it was a sensible decision from Qosimov to restore him between the sticks.
In fact, Nesterov looked more like an anxious 21-year-old starting at the first major event of his career. Some easy balls slipped from his hands, the usually reliable quality of his goal kicks was instead abysmal, and he generally gave off no confidence at all.
But this quarter-final brought something completely different out of the 31-year-old custodian with as many as 90 international caps under his belt. Or something familiar, rather.
He was suddenly extremely strong in the air and a potential difference-maker on the ground, as he pulled off some really spectacular saves. In other words: he did his best to keep Uzbekistan dreams alive as long as possible.