The Asian qualifying round for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament came to a conclusion on Wednesday, with the favourites Australia, Japan, and Korea Republic claiming their places in next year's finals. The trio's roads to Beijing have been far from straightforward, however, with the sides forced to battle hard for their tickets.
The traditional powerhouses struggled to meet the high expectations from their respective fans and the media, and only managed to secure Olympic berths on the final matchday. Australia fought back to draw 1-1 with Korea DPR, before Japan held on to earn a decisive draw against Saudi Arabia, while Korea Republic were held to a goalless stalemate by Bahrain.
Australia, in particular, have been under pressure since beginning their first qualifying campaign at this level in Asia. Despite their slow start in the second stage, with two points in as many games against Iran and Jordan, the Aussies found their touch in a 2-0 reverse of Saudi Arabia at home. A 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Saudis followed, but Australia progressed to the final stage by beating Iran and Jordan.
Although their winning streak was halted in August by a goalless draw in Iraq, the semi-finalists at Athens 2004, Graham Arnold's men kept on chasing the Iraqis with two successive home wins over Korea DPR and Lebanon. Their penultimate game against Iraq at home proved to be a crucial one, as the Aussies took control of their group after a 2-0 win with Adrian Leijer and their inspirational captain Mark Milligan scoring in each half.
After clinching a finals berth with a decisive draw thanks to Milligan's equaliser in Pyongyang, coach Arnold was quick to praise his men: "The players were put into a position in the last two games against Iraq and North Korea where they have never been before - they had to play under pressure and they knew they had to get results."
Twist and turns
Japan also made hard work of progression. After cruising past Syria, Malaysia, and Hong Kong with six straight wins to top their group in the second stage, Japan were handed a tougher task against stronger opponents, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Vietnam.
Yasuharu Sorimachi's men looked on course for Beijing after 1-0 home wins against Vietnam and Qatar respectively, but they then suffered a surprising 2-1 defeat by Qatar in Doha. However, Japan bounced back in pole position by seeing off Vietnam 4-0 in the fifth matchday thanks to a brace from Tadanari Lee.
With a draw against the Saudis enough for them to qualify for their fourth consecutive finals, Japan held on to a goalless stalemate at Tokyo's National Stadium, where they also secured their passage to two previous Olympics in Sydney and Athens. "It has been a very difficult qualifying campaign," said Sorimachi after the match. "But we are through to Beijing and we hope to work harder from now on so we can perform well next year."
In fact, it has been a much more difficult race for Korea Republic, who had to appoint a new coach in a hurry after Pim Verbeek vacated the post in July. The young Taeguk Warriors began the final stage under the guidance of Park Sung-Hwa, and things seemed to work well as they beat Uzbekistan, Bahrain, and Syria in their first three games.
Captain Kim Jin-Kyu, who also shone at Germany 2006, has been the centre of the meanest defence in the competition, while wingers Lee Keun-Ho and Kim Seung-Yong scored decisive goals in the process. However, the problem, as always for the Koreans, was in front of goal. Although they eventually booked their sixth straight ticket to the finals, Korea Republic produced no more than four goals, as they were held to 0-0 draws in the three remaining games.
Park remained positive nevertheless, and revealed his plans for the finals. "I will reinforce the squad with more experienced players next year," said the coach. "It would be good to have a utility man like Park Ji-Sung. Park Chu-Young is also recovering (from a foot injury) and I'm sure he will return to top form if he builds up his confidence."