Sweet revenge for East Asians
© AFP

Following nail-biting penalty shootouts, Japan and Korea Republic reached the semi-finals of the AFC Asian Cup 2007, along with Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who overcame Vietnam and Uzbekistan respectively.

Reigning champions Japan had been waiting for a rematch with Australia since their 3-1 defeat by the Socceroos at the FIFA World Cup™ Germany 2006, while the Koreans were relishing the opportunity to avenge their 4-3 quarter-final loss at the hands of Iran three years ago in China. In fact, it was the fourth successive meeting between the two sides at this stage of the competition: Team Melli emerged with a resounding 6-2 victory in 1996, before the Taeguk Warriors won 2-1 after extra time in 2000.

This time around, however, both teams engaged in a hard-fought battle for 120 minutes in Kuala Lumpur, which ended in a goalless stalemate. Iran coach Amir Ghalenoei brought on substitute keeper Vahid Taleblou for the ensuing shootout, but it was opposition goalie Lee Woon-Jae who proved to be the man of the match. Wearing the captain's armband in the absence of captain Kim Nam-Il, the 34-year-old saved two spot-kicks from Mehdi Mahdavikia and Rassoul Khatibi, presenting Kim Jung-Woo with the chance to make it 4-2 and send Korea Republic into the last four, which he did.

However, given their lacklustre performances during the group stage, it was hardly surprising that Korea Republic coach Pim Verbeek remained philosophical after the narrow win. "The players have done well but we have still won nothing yet," said the Dutchman, who also guided the side through two FIFA World Cup campaigns in his previous role as assistant coach. "We have reached the semi-final but that is still nothing. We have to go to the final and then try to win the cup."

In Sunday's other quarter-final in Jakarta, skipper Yasser Al Qahtani scored one and set up another to propel Saudi Arabia to a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan. The Saudis took the lead in the second minute when Yasser fired home into an empty net after Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov failed to clear a left-wing cross from Abdulrahman Al Qahtani, and substitute Ahmed Al Mousa made it 2-0 with only 15 minutes left following a neat through ball from the Al-Hilal frontman.

Uzbekistan fought back bravely until the final whistle, but luck was not on their side with the woodwork denying them on five occasions. Ultimately, Pavel Solomin's 80th minute strike proved too little, too late for the central Asians.

Holders progress as co-hosts fall
Over in Hanoi, defending champions Japan came from behind to beat Australia on penalties after their game had finished in a 1-1 draw. Captain Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi emerged as the hero of the night for Ivica Osim's side, his saves from the first two spot-kicks from Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill leaving the Socceroos with a mountain to climb.

Shunsuke Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo made it 2-0 for Japan, but Tim Cahill kept Australian hopes alive by making no mistake from twelve yards. With Japan leading 3-2, Naohiro Takahara could have converted the winning penalty, but instead he fired the ball well over the bar, allowing David Carney to equalise. However, Yuji Nakazawa stepped up to take his team's fifth penalty and the veteran defender made no mistake to send Japan into the semi-finals.

So harsh was the nature of the penalties, Osim could not stay on the bench and opted to watch the shootout unfold on television in the dressing room. The 66-year-old later admitted: "it would have been much nicer if we could have finished the game without playing the shootout. But even if we wanted, Australia didn't let us do that." As the Bosnian said, the three-time champions have had a tough time dealing with serious challenges from the newcomers.

Although Japan controlled most of the game in terms of possession and attempts on goal, it was the Socceroos who broke the deadlock in the 69th minute. John Aloisi slotted home from close range after a Kewell corner sailed across the crowded goalmouth untouched. However, the Japanese fought back immediately and it took only three minutes for them to get back into the game, as Takahara intercepted Mark Milligan's miscued clearance before firing the ball home for his fourth goal of the competition.

In a showdown in Bangkok between the tournament's surprise packages, Iraq eliminated Vietnam, the only co-hosts who survived the group stage, 2-0 thanks to a brace from skipper Younis Mahmoud. He opened the scoring in only the second minute with a pinpoint header off a Nashat Akram set piece, then doubled the lead from a direct free-kick in the 65th minute.

Iraq will now travel to Kuala Lumpur for Wednesday's semi-final clash with Korea Republic, who beat them 3-0 in a recent friendly, while Saudi Arabia head for Hanoi to face Japan, whom they lost to in the finals of the Asian Cup in 1992 and 2000.


Quarter-final results
Saturday, 21 July
Japan 1-1 Australia (Japan win 4-3 on penalties)
Iraq 2-0 Vietnam

Sunday, 22 July
Iran 0-0 Korea Republic (Korea Republic win 4-2 on penalties)
Saudi Arabia 2-1 Uzbekistan

Semi-final fixtures
Wednesday, 25 July
Iraq vs. Korea Republic
Japan vs. Saudi Arabia

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