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  • Writer's pictureMatt Olsen

The AFC Asian Cup: A generation-defining quarter-final awaits the Socceroos

There comes a time in tournament football every once in a while when you can become so encapsulated with one moment that it defines any group's broader scope and achievements for years after that. For the Socceroos, one can ask where the Denmark moment at the World Cup would have been without Mitch Duke and Harry Souttar's heroics against Tunisia four days prior. Without that defining moment for the campaign, the glory Australians witnessed on that fateful November morning could have never happened. With this reflection firmly on the mind, the anticipation for a tournament-defining Asian Cup quarter-final en route to one of the easiest semi-final draws in Australia's history is off the charts.

Socceroos winger Craig Goodwin celebrates his goal against Indonesia in the Round of 16. (Image: Subway Socceroos X)


The background surrounding the upcoming fixture against South Korea is an aspect many fans may be intrigued with, especially regarding Graham Arnold and the Socceroos' previous history on this stage.


It marks the fifth Asian Cup quarter-final since relocation to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Of those five campaigns, it is the third quarter-final managed by Arnold. The other two were a penalty shootout loss to Japan in Hanoi in 2007 and a quarter-final upset at the hands of the host nation UAE in 2019, meaning the Australian manager has more than just a few personal grievances to overcome.

Australia's history against South Korea also reaches another exciting point in its story, one that for many started in earnest when the Australian national team beat the Koreans in Hong Kong to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. So prominent were the mid-20th century fixtures between the two sides that still, to this day, the great Ray Baartz holds the record as top scorer across all 28 previous meetings, albeit with just three goals.


The 29th of said meetings shapes up as historic no matter the result, having been billed as the 2015 Final rematch and held in high esteem by Tottenham Hotspur fans given Son Heung-min's relationship with Australia provided by that match and also his relationship with Ange Postecoglou, which the Korean superstar was quick to mention during pre-season in Perth back in July.


Another element of this forthcoming match, teased throughout the tournament, is its venue. The tournament's second quarter-final will be held in the oceanic surrounds of the port city of Al-Wakrah, formerly held in high regard for its place in the Qatari economy as a wealth of pearl farms that graced its coast for many years and whose stadium, the Al-Janoub, is modelled in the shape of a Qatari pearl farming vessel, known as a dhow boat.


Its special relationship with Australia lies with the results obtained by the class of 2022 in Qatar, having overcome feared European and African opposition in the stadium's embrace. But there is something more deeply rooted here for the more sentimental types.

The oceanic facade on the seating at Al-Janoub stadium highlights the role of the port in early Qatari history. (Image: Gazanfarulla Khan)


Al-Janoub essentially translates to "The Stadium of the South", referring to its geographical distance from Doha in the southern port of the region. Both at the World and Asian Cup Finals, Australia was and is the southernmost nation competing. This aspect, combined with the team's results on the ground and its oceanic theme, make it suitable for a place in Australian sporting history.


Of course, with the over-arching narratives aside, we have two form sides who have jumped their way over the many hurdles provided by the tournament throughout its first half.


South Korea, having been leaky defensively with six goals conceded, comes into the match knowing the emphasis on defensive input will have to diversify against the many modes of attack Australia can pose when on the counterattack or from dead ball situations, with a special mention to how Malaysia exposed this weakness on matchday three.

For Australia, the stakes have only risen higher. While many are critical of the approach thus far, striker Mitch Duke, while fronting the press on Wednesday, has stressed that it is something the squad and management have been on top of in camp.


"We have shown bits of improvement, and we can always be better, and this is our focus. We need to be winning first and foremost; this is the nature of tournament football," Duke said.


He continued similarly with previous comments by teammate and defender Harry Souttar, making sure the fans' concerns were understood but that the side's gameplan was still designed to work out in the end.


"We know it is a very opinionated game; people want to see better football and more fluidity. If we go on to win this Asian Cup, though, no one is going to mind too much about our past performances," he added.


Duke also commented on the fortunes of South Korea, noting the longevity of their scrappy shootout win against Saudi Arabia and how it may be something the Roos can exploit.


"They have got a short turnaround, and they played the 120 minutes plus penalties, so there will be sore and tired bodies in the South Korean camp, something we can exploit with our high energy and physicality," he said.


If the game is a physical and long-drawn tight affair, an effort which is undoubtedly extremely tough, the hope from all observers will be that the endurance aspect Duke is referring to pulls through in the end, which all Socceroos fans may believe can be enough to make it through.

 

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When looking at the other half of the Australian side of the draw, the first quarter-final is a fairytale story pitting two first-timers against each other in Tajikistan and Jordan. With Jordan's explosive never-say-die attitude and Tajikistan's astute and pragmatic attacking style capable of putting any side down, the match promises to deliver.


However, to this extent, the Australian side of the draw opens up a promising chance to punch a ticket to the Final.


Internally, those in the know and involved with the team's inner workings must be very excited with the knowledge of just how wide open this window of opportunity is. But also weary of an aspect of history being formed before their eyes yet again, as Jordan is a side that has overcome the Socceroos twice in recent years, and the Tajiks hold a fascinating history against Australian sides both in youth football and the senior game.

If there is one element fans should cherish, though, to the original point, it is that of history. The Socceroos and their manager can write a new chapter with this most influential quarter-final matchup. The near-golden generation of South Korea has the sparks to light that fire that burns through their Asian Cup history, having still not won the tournament since 1960.


To this end, we cannot wait to see what lies ahead and what history may write about a moment that may define either nation for years to come.


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