Little Boy Blue's World Cup Diary - Day 19
This was sure to be a dramatic day, with the World Cup future of both the host nations on the line. At first glance JAPAN would appear to be the best bet to progress to the last eight and several corners in the opening stages generated great optimism in the crowd, only for it to be shattered by TURKEY after 11 minutes. Koji Nakata needlessly gave away a corner kick, Ergun flighted it over and Umit Davala rose unchallenged to direct his header into the net from six yards.
It was a major test of the Japanese character and they certainly rose to the challenge. Alex had a shot saved and Hidetoshi Nakata and Inamoto both won free-kicks in promising positions as the Turks found themselves under the cosh. But there was always the chance of Turkey doing some damage on the break and a 25-yard drive from Hasan Sas (pronounced Sash) reminded the Japs they could not neglect their defensive duties.
During the first half it was interesting to hear ITV commentator Jon Champion refer to Tugay as possibly the 'best pound for pound purchase of last season'. Blackburn Rovers paid just over a million quid for the wee man and, while we all know Souness can be a hard man to negotiate with, I still can't understand why Tricky Dicky and The Minted One allowed him to leave Ibrox for such a paltry sum.
Four minutes before half-time Alex cracked a free-kick off the junction of post and crossbar as Japan continued to dominate but the Turks got to the interval with their lead intact. Then we had the irritation of listening to talk of the possibility of Turkey meeting England in the semi-finals. Talk about getting ahead of yourself! Not only do the English have the not inconsiderable hurdle of Brazil to get past, Turkey's place in the quarter-finals was still far from secure.
There was no respite in the pressure on the Turks but the Japanese tendency to overcook things, making one pass too many, led to promising attacks breaking down before they could get in a shot at goal. Turkey grew in confidence and, as the co-hosts grew more and more desperate, the possibility of the killer second goal became ever more likely. In the end they settled for the one goal victory and now face Senegal in the last eight at the weekend. What odds would Ladbroke's have offered against such an unfashionable quarter-final meeting?
Throught this World Cup there has been much talk about the strength of the partnership between Japan and SOUTH KOREA but, in truth, while the men in suits might have been getting along well, there is a fierce rivalry between the punters. Turkey's win will have been loudly cheered in Daejeon. Not only did the Japs' exit ease the pressure on the Koreans, the possibility of them going on a stage further surely spurred the home side against ITALY.
Of course, 1966 and North Korea's 1-0 victory over the Italians at Middlesbrough was mentioned once or twice but, even with the Serie A superstars showing an inclination to blow hot and cold, it was hard to see them blowing it. But when they gifted the Koreans a fourth minute penalty after Panucci was all over Seol Ki Hyeon I did begin to wonder. Much to the Eyeties' relief, Buffon dived to turn Ahn Jung Hwan's spot kick round the post but, having already had four goals disallowed in the tournament, there might have been some suggestions that the ref was a bit of a homer.
Any doubts about the referee surely evaporated when Del Piero bought a 14th minute free-kick. He wasted that one but made much better use of a corner kick four minutes later, knocking it into the goalmouth where Vieri held off a challenge to score with a close range header. Just like Japan, Korea had to overcome an early setback but you always felt the Italians would be even harder to break down than the Turks had been this morning.
Ahn Jung Hwan came close to making amends for his penalty miss when a clever turn opened up the route to goal but he rushed his shot and the ball flashed high and wide. It was a warning the Italians heeded and they might have gone further ahead when Totti sent Tomassi clean through but keeper Lee Woon Jae was quickly off his line to save. A second goal in the closing stages of the first half would surely have killed off the Koreans but, to their great credit, there wasn't a trace of caution in their approach and Ahn Jung Hwan got in another shot just before the interval but Buffon again defied him with a diving save.
This game showed signs of developing into an action replay of the Japan v Turkey clash. Encouraged by a passionate crowd, the Koreans kept pushing forward but, against well-organized experienced opponents, they appeared to lack the craft to break them down. The Italians gave the impression they were well in control and Trappatoni took steps to guard against complacency when he replaced the superbly gifted Del Piero with the more effective Rino Gattuso. Whatever would happen, Italy would not lose too many 50-50 confrontations in midfield.
The BBC's commentary team of Barry Davies and Joe Royle rightly lamented Italy's reluctance to be more positive and frequently referred to how they came a cropper when two late Croatian goals transformed victory to defeat. Surely the Azzuri would not flop so dismally again. Twice Vieri broke clear and missed excellent chances to tie things up and sensationally, just when it looked like they'd got out of jail, the Italians were found out. Two minutes from the end, Panucci made a mess of clearing a cross, the ball fell to Seol Ki Hyeon and the attacket tucked his shot into the corner of the net.
Suddenly it looked like nobody fancied extra time. Vieri wasted a glorious chance to deliver an instant response when he failed to make clean contact with a Tomassi cross while, at the other end, an overhead kick from late sub Cha Du Ri was saved by Buffon, then Seol Ki Hyeon fired a shot into the side-netting. What a finish to a game which, had Italy had their way, would have petered out quietly.
South Korea burst straight out of trap one at the start of extra-time, winning several corners and forcing two excellent saves from Buffon. And things went from bad to worse for Italy was Totti was shown his second yellow card for diving. Down to ten men against the fired-up underdogs, the Italians were in big trouble and, having had a lucky escape when Hwang Sun Hong sent a weak header into the goalkeeper's arms, their best hope appeared to lie in holding out for penalty kicks. It was not to be.
The penalty shoot-out was just three minutes away when Ahn Jung Hwan, the man who had missed from the spot right at the start, got on to the end of a cross to score the golden goal with a glancing header...yet just moments earlier it had taken a great save from Lee Woon Jae to foil a run and shot from Rino Gattuso. However, the wee man's powerful break was right out of character in a very negative Italian performance and, while they will no doubt have a complaint or two about the referee, they didn't put enough into this game to deserve to win it.
So one of the hosts are out while South Korea march on and you have to say the World Cup would be much poorer without the mass hysteria of the Korean fans. However, if the TV people are to be believed, the passion of the Japanese fans will not be lost. They, we hear, are transferring their support to England. Fair enough...but who will they be rooting for after Friday?
LITTLE BOY BLUE