- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

SYDNEY (AP) - Two-time champion South Korea defeated Iraq 2-0 to qualify for its first Asian Cup final in nearly 30 years at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium on Monday.

Lee Jeong-hyeop’s header in the first half and Kim Young-gwon’s long-range strike just after halftime lifted South Korea to its first continental final since 1988 and within a victory of its first Asian Cup title since 1960.

“After 27 years, it’s the first time we will be, another time, in the final,” said South Korea coach Uli Stielike. “It’s very important for all the work we have to do in the future. Even if we win the tournament, Korean football has a lot of work to do.”

The 2007 champions Iraq, led by talismanic striker Younis Mahmoud, struggled for opportunities against South Korea’s solid defense that has not conceded a goal in all five games played at the tournament - a span of 480 minutes, including the extra time period against Uzbekistan in the quarterfinal.

South Korea will next play the winner of Tuesday’s second semifinal between host team Australia and UAE in the final at Sydney on Saturday.

“For us, in this tournament, we had two important games” said Stielike. “The first was one was Australia (in the group stage) because of the design of the tournament. With our victory, we took the place of Australia and that gave us the advantage of one day’s rest in the upcoming games.”

“The second big victory for us was today.”

In wet, cool conditions on Australia’s national holiday, the match started at a frantic pace as both teams launched quick counterattacks.

Son Heung-min, who scored a brace in South Korea’s 2-0 extra-time win over Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals, made the most of a stretched Iraqi defense to streak through midfield and hit a shot that Jalal Hassan had to tip over the bar for the game’s first attempt on target in the 19th minute.

South Korea made the breakthrough in the next minute when man of the match Kim Jinsu’s curling freekick to the back post was met by a well-timed run from Lee. He held off defender Waleed Salim and headed past a static Hassan to open the scoring with his second goal of the tournament.

Mahmoud, who has legendary status in his homeland after scoring the winning goal in the 2007 final against Saudi Arabia at Jakarta, cut a frustrated figure for most of the first half, unable to gain possession and generally well marshalled by South Korea’s defense.

South Korea doubled its advantage shortly after halftime by capitalizing on Iraq’s inability to clear its lines as a high ball was chested down by Lee for Kim Young-gwon.

Kim’s volley from just outside the box deflected off defender Salam Shakir’s heel and past Hassan to all but extinguish Iraq’s hopes of a repeat of its stunning 2007 success.

After conceding the second goal, Iraq began to throw caution to the wind and found openings in the South Koreans’ defense, but was unable to find a final pass to create a clear chance.

“The South Korea team had quality players from high quality leagues,” said Iraq coach Radhi Swadi. “I think we had two mistakes, which they used and scored through. Hopefully, we can do something in the upcoming match.”

A pitch invasion by a fan wearing a t-shirt with an Iraqi flag provided the only sour moment from a vibrant crowd of 36,053. Security officials intervened and several Iraqi players also restrained the fan who was led to waiting police.

South Korea saw out the final few minutes to record its first Asian Cup victory against Iraq. The previous two meetings had finished goalless.

Stielike made two changes from the team that beat Uzkbeskistan with 34-year-old wing back Cha Du-ri and Han Kyowon replacing Kim Chang-soo and Lee Keun-ho.

Iraq also made two changes with Amjed Kalaf replacing suspended midfielder Yaser Kasim and Osamah Jabber in for Justin Meram.

Alaa Abdulzehra started the match, despite the distraction of Iran’s official protest after its quarterfinal loss to Iraq about the midfielder’s eligibility due to an alleged doping infraction while he played for Tractor Sazi in the Iranian domestic league.

The Asian Football Confederation dismissed the protest as unfounded on the eve of Iraq’s semifinal against South Korea.

“It was a dead objection from the start,” said Swadi. “We didn’t really worry about that.”

Host team Australia faces UAE in the second semifinal at Newcastle on Tuesday, looking to reach its second successive Asian Cup final.

“Australia is the strongest team for me in the tournament,” said Stielike. “No doubt about it, tomorrow Australia will go forward.”

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