The Olyroos' Tokyo dreams were dealt a reality check on Thursday morning, after they were comprehensively outplayed on their way to a 2-0 defeat at the hands of South Korea in the semi-finals of the 2020 AFC U23 Championships.
With both a spot in the final and berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics up for grabs in the semifinal the stakes were high but, unfortunately for Head Coach Graham Arnold’s side, they were never able to get out of the blocks against the Koreans.
Though it took until the second half for the side in red to get on the scoreboard through man-of-the-match Kim Dae-won, they were in control almost straight from the get-go at the Thammasat Stadium.
Indeed, when substitute Lee Dong-gyeong drove home the game’s second goal in the 76th minute it felt less like a dagger and more like a coup de grace – the Koreans mercifully extinguishing any flickering hopes of a comeback that was never going to come.
However, the defeat does not mean that Australia’s quest to secure a place in the Olympics for the first time since 2008 is dead.
With three-sides winning the right to represent the AFC at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, the Olyroos will head for a third-place playoff with Uzbekistan on Saturday night with a simple equation in front of them.
Win and you’re in. Lose and you get nothing.
FULL-TIME | Australia U23 🇦🇺 0-2 Korea Republic U23 🇰🇷— #AFCU23 (@theafcdotcom) January 22, 2020
🤩 Goals from Kim Dae-won and Lee Dong-gyeong secure a 2-0 win for 🇰🇷 to set up an #AFCU23 final against Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 on Sunday and seal a place at #Tokyo2020! pic.twitter.com/Cvu8IWGh1O
The Koreans flashed the game’s first bit of danger in the third minute of play when striker Oh Se-hun, shrugging off an attempted shirt pull from Aiden O’Neill, let loose with an effort from range that Tom Glover was forced to get down low to collect.
They then threatened again in the 13th minute when Dae-won stared down his marker on the left before looping a ball into the area that, coming off the head of Tass Mourdoukoutas, fell to Um Won-sang and allowed him to flash a first time effort wide.
Against the run of play, Australia - who started with tournament standout Reno Piscopo on the bench - had their first chance of the game in the 23rd minute when a driven into the area by Alex Gersbach eventually made its way to Al Hassan Toure.
His shot taking a deflection, the ball fell to Trent Buhagiar at the top of the six-yard-box but the Sydney FC man couldn’t control it in the chaos and the ball went out of play.
Answering quickly, the Koreans came within inches of scoring when Se-hun turned and blasted a thunderous effort from just outside the area goalward only for his shot to clatter off the post and back into play.
Dylan Ryan, hanging around after a corner, hammered Australia’s best chance of the game just wide in the 45th minute when he met Lee Sang-min’s attempted clearance of a chipped pass into the box with a half-volleyed effort that bounced wide.
But quickly as the chance had been created, Dae-won went even closer up the other end seconds later when, demonstrating brilliant control of the ball, he ducked and weaved around several Australian markers before launching a shot that, although it beat Glover, flashed wide of the post.
In a madcap stretch, Dae-won forced Glover to turn a shot out for a corner seconds into the second stanza before an attempted fast break by the Australians moments later was snuffed out when Toure was unable to thread a pass through to Buhagiar.
A corner won by Dae-won somehow didn’t produce the first goal of the contest in the 51st after a headed effort from 195cm central defender Jeong Tae-uk’s crashed off the post and back to Dong-Jun Lee.
The substitute's poor first touch, however, enabled the Australians to desperately scramble back and clear the danger.
But Australia couldn’t push their luck forever and in the 56th minute they were punished after the Koreans purposely moved from defence to attack and created a shot from You-Hyeon Lee that crashed off the post and fell perfectly for an open Dae-won to slide home.
The contest was then sealed in the 76th minute when, running onto a bouncing ball knocked back towards the Australian goal after a half-hearted clearance, substitute Dong-gyeong cut inside Ryan to buy himself a yard of space before slotting an effort inside the near post.
South Korean Supremacy
While Australia hadn’t been spectacular at any point during the Championships, so far they hadn’t, aside from a poor first half against the host-nation, ever looked like the clearly second-best team on the park in Thailand.
That changed against South Korea, who stamped their authority on the game almost from the opening kick-off.
With every Korean attack looking capable of rippling the back of the net, the back four of Gersbach, Ryan, Mourdoukoutas and Gabriel Cleur were forced to operate on the edge of a knife.
Korea's wingers constantly threatened to break containment on their way to the byline and even though their delivery from wide areas could have been a lot better targeted, their central targets – led by Se-hun – demonstrated an ability to find space and the touch to create chances within it when the ball did for them.
Conversely, coming up against a well-organised and disciplined Korean press, the Olyroos struggled to get anything close to something resembling insightful play when forced to build up from the back and all too frequently opted to play long balls forward in search of an onrushing forward.
Though he had looked dangerous when introduced as an extra-time difference-maker against Syria in the quarterfinals, Buhagiar quickly bursting into space a more difficult against a fresh and tactically astute defence.
The contest, therefore, exposed Australia’s lack of creativity in the midfield as an industrious trio of Keanu Baccus, Connor Metcalfe and O’Neill struggling to establish any sort of proper link between the Australian’s defence and attack.
When the ball did eventually make its way to the Korean defensive third, a lack of proper penetrative play from the Australians meant that they were forced to settle for half-looks on goal at best - the Olyroos failing to register a single shot on target during the contest.
On an individual player level, the Koreans did have the edge over Australia on Wednesday morning.
But the way that both teams were selected and organised, what they tried to accomplish both with and without the ball and the intent both sides showed when in possession served to colossally magnify the difference.
Kim Dae-won: Superstar
If there was one moment that could serve as a microcosm of the differences between the quality and intent of the two side's attacks, it was demonstrated in a late first-half chance from Dae-won.
Receiving a bouncing ball between his legs as Korea stamped out an attempted break, his first instinct wasn't to quickly move the ball on but, instead, look to turn and face goal.
A backheeled touch to swivel towards the Australian penalty area completely neutralized Cleur and Baccus alongside him, and his subsequent move to take him around Mourdoukoutas opened up an angle that gave him enough room to launch his shot inches wide.
It was, in the words of Ned Zelic, a moment of individual brilliance that Australia lacked on Thursday morning.
The 22-year-old was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best player afield on Thursday morning, giving the Australian defence fits in both wide positions and centrally.
While his 56th minute goal was a relatively simple finish, the quality of his play and chances created probably would have justified one or two more.
Dae-won.was a regular starter for K-League side Daegu FC during the 2018 domestic season, scoring seven goals and adding four assists across 44 appearances in all competitions.
A regular part of Korean youth-sides, one would think that, if he can continue to turn in performances as he did on Wednesday, a senior international call-up would soon be forthcoming from senior national boss Paulo Bento – as well as a possible move to Europe.
As mentioned, Australia will have a second chance to qualify for Tokyo on Saturday night when they meet Uzbekistan, who were vanquished by Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s other semi-final.
But while the Uzbeks don’t have the same name-brand value as South Korea, there can be no mistake made in the lead in; Australia will be underdogs in that game.
Champions of the AFC U23 Championships in 2018 under Ravshan Khaydarov, the Uzbeks, now under the guidance of Ljubinko Drulović, gave as good as they got against a very good Saudi Arabia and were only eliminated by an 87th minute strike from Nasser Al Omran.
As their 2018 title coming in a tournament that wasn’t tied to Olympic qualification, the While Wolves will be desperate in Saturday's contest; looking to secure their first-ever berth at the Games.
With the lessons of the semifinal hopefully heeded and an ability to start the likes of Tommy Deng, Piscopo and Denis Genreau, there is scope for Australia to put in a much-improved performance on Wednesday.
One will be needed, because what was produced against South Korea won't be enough against the Uzbeks.