SYDNEY – South Korea coach Uli Stielike accepts his side’s status as favorites in Monday’s Asian Cup semifinal against Iraq, but the German has warned his players they must be on top of their game to avoid a similar fate to defending champions Japan — and former world No. 1 tennis star Roger Federer.
South Korea is the only team of the four highest FIFA world-ranked teams left in the tournament, with Japan, upset 5-4 on penalties by the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Uzbekistan all eliminated.
Federer was one of the big names to make an earlier-than-expected exit at the Australian Open being held in Melbourne.
“Tomorrow will be a game where we have to accept the role of favorites because we are coming here in the third position among the Asian teams in the world rankings and Iraq is No. 13, so there is no discussion that we have to accept this role,” Stielike told a press conference in Sydney on Sunday.
“Only South Korea from the four (top-ranked teams) are still challenging, but if you look at Melbourne, Roger Federer is already out. Sport needs surprises,” he said.
“If it was mathematics, nobody would come to the pitch. And also for us it is important to know that if you don’t want to be surprised tomorrow we have to work very hard.”
South Korea had to deal with a number of injuries and illness earlier in the tournament, and will be missing Mainz attacker Koo Ja-cheol and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Lee Chung-yong, who have been ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
Stielike says the rest of the group are fit and rested following their extra-time 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in the last eight on Thursday, but played down any advantage of one day more rest than Iraq, which beat Iran 7-6 on penalties after a drama-packed 3-3 draw with 10-man Iran on Friday.
“I said that I hoped Iraq would have to play extra time (against Iran) but my hope was also that they would play 11 against 11,” said Stielike.
“It’s not the same if you are playing all of the second half and extra time with one more man on the pitch than to play against 11.
“I think if we are going into the game only thinking of this one more extra day, this would be the worst thing we can do. We have to play fast balls and fight and go to challenges and we have to force Iraq to run a lot. Only if this is the case we can have an advantage physically.”
South Korea has reached the semifinals of the competition for the third time in a row. It lost to Iraq on penalties after a 0-0 draw in the last four of the 2007 tournament that Iraq went on to win.
Mainz midfielder Park Joo-ho said the prospect of South Korea winning its first Asian Cup title since 1960 was extra motivation for the players, but admitted he was not thinking beyond Monday’s game.
“Obviously since we haven’t won this tournament for such a long time it does bring us additional motivation and responsibility as well,” said the former Kashima Antlers and Jubilo Iwata man.
“It is also a good opportunity for us to bring the cup back home and the players are also desperate to win this tournament as well. I know a lot of people back home want us to win this tournament for the first time in 55 years but we are not right now discussing being champions and have to stay concentrated on tomorrow’s game.”
Looking ahead to the match, Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishil, who will be without suspended Yaser Kasim, said he hopes his players could get past the South Koreans and repeat the success of 2007.
“I hope that happens again but we respect South Korea,” he said. “You have to respect your opponents to achieve a positive result. Hopefully this new generation of players can produce something that will remind the Iraqi people of the 2007 scenario.”
The Asian Football Confederation’s Disciplinary Committee on Sunday dismissed a protest by Iran’s federation, alleging that Iraq had fielded an ineligible player, Alaa Abdul Zahrah Khashen Al-Azzawi, in their quarterfinal match. The AFC website said that the committee heard oral evidence from two Iran officials but decided the protest was unfounded.