Australia got the result they wanted on a damp evening in Newcastle to reach their second consecutive Asian Cup final. Like Korea Republic the day before, they took the initiative early on, secured a two goal buffer and then backed this up with solid defence to stifle the opposition.
Although there had been heavy rain earlier in the day, the conditions had eased by kick off and the pitch conditions did not suffer to any significant extent. UAE were backing up after a draining quarter final that went to a penalty shoot out and had one less day’s recovery that their opponents.
Due to AFC restrictions the normal capacity of Newcastle Stadium (known to locals as Hunter Stadium) was reduced very significantly. Despite being officially “sold-out”, the crowd was just over 21,000.
Expectations and confidence levels were high amongst the vast majority of Socceroos’ supporters, and their team did not disappoint as they took off in devastating fashion. Inside three minutes, a corner from Massimo Luongo found the unmarked Trent Sainsbury who headed home into the corner for 1-0.
UAE countered after nine minutes with a sweeping move down the right side culminating in a strike by Ahmed Khalil hitting the outside of the near post and out.
On 14 minutes, a cut back cross from Ivan Franjic led to two attempts on goal being blocked only for Luongo at full stretch to touch the ball neatly on for left back Jason Davidson who shot low from 10 metres inside the near post to make it 2-0. Australia had started either slowly or just steadily in their previous four games, and so this was a refreshing contrast to more than settle any early nerves.
UAE’s star no 10 playmaker “Omar” Abdulrahman looked sharper and much more energetic than in the quarter final. However, he often looked on a different or higher wave-length of thinking than most team-mates other than perhaps Khalil who was consistently a menace for the Australian defence.
An almost bizarre incident involving one of the assistant officials occurred in the 38th minute when a rapid clearance from goalkeeper Mat Ryan found Tim Cahill at pace with only one defender left to beat. This was given offside, and yet clearly when the ball was first kicked the star striker was inside his own half, and so onside. Later in the second half there were to be two refereeing decisions to give goal kicks when clearly the UAE keeper had made finger tips saves to deny these attempts on goal.
After half time the UAE were able to retain a lot more possession especially through their go to player in Omar. This did not translate to creation of many clear cut chances on goal and for the most part Ryan was not called on to make crucial saves. Sainsbury as the last line of defence made a crucial headed interception in the 89th minute, and by that point the game was beyond their opponents. Indeed a late flurry almost led to a third goal in stoppage time added with dynamic attacking midfielder Matthew Leckie going close once again.
Full time and the crowd rose up to salute their victorious Socceroos, with the full realisation that a date with destiny was only four days away in Sydney.
Post match reaction was of course positive from the Australian players, and yet already recognising the need to quickly refocus in preparation for playing a vastly different style of opponent. Korea Republic is still yet to concede a goal in five games at this tournament and it will be a big challenge for the host nation to break down such a well organised defensive structure.
Player of the match Massimo Luongo revealed that “obviously there’s the pressure of the trophy at the end. We know the mistakes we made in that game (previously against Korea). We don’t want to change too much because I think we dominated that game and the way we play is going to give every team a problem. Obviously we’ll do our analysis and go through the same things that we did in every game and we’ll be well prepared”.
“I’m just enjoying the whole thing (tournament); I think I’m more overwhelmed than worrying about than how tired I am mentally.” Massimo said.
Matthew Spiranovic believed that “even though we came away with the 2-0 result, it was still a very tough contest and they really pushed hard. Even though we found ourselves in a good position early on they really tried to get that goal; and fortunately we stayed strong and got the result we needed. We wanted to continue playing the football that we’ve done the whole tournament and I think we did that better in the second half”.
About the quick turnaround of four days between each game, he responded with “it’s great that we didn’t play extra time tonight, and we are in a good position leading to the final on Saturday”.
Ivan Franjic allayed concerns about an injury scare when he suffered a knock to his hip late in the game by saying “I’m sure it will be good for Saturday”.
Goalkeeper Mat Ryan was inspired the prospect of playing the final “in front of my home, I grew up in western Sydney and still a little bit of a dream at the moment but it’s going to become a reality in the next few days. Just can’t wait for it, and hopefully we can deliver a win for the Australian public”.
Overnight stay was in the nearby Wests Leagues Club which hosted a large contingent of Socceroos’ fans, and then this morning a two hour drive back to home base on the edge of Sydney. The next few days will provide an opportunity to ‘freshen up’ ahead of what will be a blockbuster game with a sell out crowd of just under 80,000 and a live TV audience of many tens or even hundreds of millions viewers across Asia. Stadium Australia, previously the main setting for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, will be the place to be on this Saturday night.
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More pictures from last night