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Monday, January 24, 2011

Japan and South Korea extend long football rivalry on Tuesday in Asian Cup semifinals


DOHA, Qatar — With Japan facing traditional rival South Korea in the Asian Cup semifinals on Tuesday, coach Alberto Zaccheroni is trying to keep his players' motivation under control.
The experienced Italian coach believes too much motivation might increase tension among Japan players, who are seeking to win a record fourth Asian Cup title and are already well aware of the stakes.
Zaccheroni expects a tight match between very similar teams, and thinks it will be decided by small details.
South Korea is also trying to play down the loaded history of the two sides that have five Asian titles and 12 semifinal appearances between them.
The two countries are historical rivals mainly due to Tokyo's brutal 35-year occupation of the Korean peninsula in the early part of the last century.
Major international soccer and baseball matches between them have drawn huge attention in both countries, whose relations often suffer from territorial and historical disputes stemming from the colonial legacy. In recent years, however, a sports rivalry has emerged as the two countries have grown closer, especially in the cultural sphere. In 2002, South Korea and Japan co-hosted the World Cup.
"I don't want to focus too much on the background between Japan and South Korea," South Korea midfielder Koo Ja-cheol said Monday, one day before the semifinal.
"It's always something special, but it's just a game before the final and it won't make a big difference to us," said Koo, who leads the tournament's scoring table with four goals.
Japan midfielder Makoto Hasebe also didn't want to dwell on the past.
"I don't need to speak about it a lot, you know the history and the relationship of the two teams. We'll play with pride in tomorrow's match," Hasebe said. "I want to be the champion here and that's more important than beating South Korea."
For Zaccheroni, Japan vs. South Korea is the Asian version of Brazil vs. Argentina or Italy vs. Germany, the classic South American and European showdowns.
"I don't know about South Korea, but for me yes, it's like those rivalries," the former Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan coach said.
Zaccheroni said his players were "mentally exhausted" after they battled from behind with 10 men to defeat host Qatar in the quarterfinals and gave them a day off to rest on Sunday.
"The physical side is important but the mental aspect is especially important when you've had a tight match so I needed to give them a day off," Zaccheroni said. "I don't need to motivate my players, they know how important tomorrow's match is. I have to find the right balance between focus and tension, too much tension is not good.
"I have to adjust and control the right level of tension. Too much motivation leads to too much tension."
Japan defender Maya Yoshida will be out after picking up a red card against Qatar but Zaccheroni said he was not worried about his young defence, which has conceded four goals in four games.
"We lead the tournament with 11 goals scored," the coach said of Japan's high-powered attack.
Zaccheroni's team will rely on the scoring abilities of striker Shinji Okazaki, who has three goals so far, midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who exploded with two against Qatar, and the midfield inspiration of Keisuke Honda.
Japan has won three of the past five Asian titles but has a losing record overall (34-10) against South Korea. At the Asian Cup, though, the teams have won a game each, with South Korea winning on penalties in the third-place playoff four years ago.
South Korea, which progressed with a 1-0 extra-time win over Iran, will be eager to make up for a consistent record of failure in the knockout stages of this tournament. It has only once failed to make the quarterfinals in 12 appearances but has not won it since the last of its two titles in 1960.
South Korea captain and Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung will be playing his 100th international.
"I won't put too much meaning to the fact that it'll be my 100th match. It's the semifinal and against Japan, and that will make the match very interesting," said Park, who will vie for supremacy in the midfield against Honda.
South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae said the two teams were very similar.
"Both teams focus on controlling the game in midfield and building up from there to go into attack in high tempo, It will an exciting match to watch," Cho said.
Zaccheroni expects the same.
"It's going to be a very close match, where details and little things will make the difference. We have to stay focused and fight the entire match, we have to work for 90 minutes without stopping. The team with the bigger desire will win," Zaccheroni said.