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Undermanned SKorea sweat on Son for Asian Cup semifinals

January 25, 2015

Iraq has shrugged off the distraction of the Alaa Abdulzehra eligibility drama and been given the all clear for the Asian Cup semifinal on Monday against South Korea, which has its own concerns over the health of key playmaker Son Heung-min.

The Bayer Leverkusen creative midfielder missed two group games with illness before returning for South Korea’s extra-time quarterfinal win over Uzbekistan.

The exertion of the two-hour game after his illness overwhelmed Son, who was carried from field on a stretcher after the final whistle.

Whether he can return to his peak on just three days’ rest to face 2007 champion Iraq in Sydney will be crucial for a South Korea team which has already lost Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-Cheol to injuries.

“It’s not an excuse but we are missing two or three big players,” coach Uli Stielike said. “No other team has had to show such mental strength and sacrifice as our boys.”

South Korea is yet to concede a goal in four games at the tournament, but even that impressive statistic has failed to impress an impatient supporter base which is demanding the team end the Asian Cup title drought that dates back to 1960.

“The pressure the national team is under in Korea has given us some mental problems,” he said. “Now with these injuries, there’s even more pressure on us to reach the final.”

Iraq is on a high after surprisingly eliminating neighbor Iran in a thrilling quarterfinal, which saw Iran — with 10 men — twice equalize in extra time before Iraq won the penalty shootout 7-6.

Talismanic striker and captain Younis Mahmoud scored against Iran, and his experience of guiding the lineup to the 2007 Asian Cup title will be vital to building self-belief.

“We have a young squad and he is our leader,” coach Radhi Shenaishil said. “He’s the type of player that opponents hate to play against.”

Iraq received some welcome news, ending days of uncertainty, when the Asian Football Confederation dismissed a protest from Iran about Iraq using Abdulzehra in the quarterfinal.

The AFC disciplinary committee held an emergency meeting Sunday and gave Iran the opportunity to produce evidence to support its claim that Abdulzehra should have been disqualified for the quarterfinals last Friday due to an alleged doping infraction while he played for Tractor Sazi last year in in the Iranian domestic league.

“The disciplinary committee heard oral evidence from two (Iran) officials, deliberated the matter based on its merits, and decided that the protest was unfounded,” the AFC said in a statement. “The protest was, therefore, dismissed.”

Abdulzehra denied he was subject to any doping sanctions, and Iraqi football federation chief Abdul Khaliq Masood said the midfielder’s position in the team shouldn’t be in dispute.

“When (Iran) filed the objection we knew our position and the player position is correct,” Masood said. “Alaa Abdulzehra does not have any punishment from FIFA or the Asian federation. This allegation I think is not correct, because if he have any punishment they should (have) sent us a letter with his international card and mentioned that the player (was) being punished, and the reason for the punishment.”

Abdulzehra said the Iranians were looking for excuses for their quarterfinal loss.

“This case should not be raised. Since I started playing football I don’t have any issue like this, I never drink anything illegal, and if I need to take any (medication) I always ask the team doctor,” he said. “The Iranian team should be better than that. If a team can’t beat you on the pitch, it should not try to find other excuses.”

He said the Iranian protest hadn’t interfered with Iraq’s preparations for the semis.

“No, we have experience with pressure for long time, but to be honest this issue didn’t engage us,” he said. “The team is concentrating well. The Korean team is different from the Iranian team in the speed, organization, and they have top players, but our ambition is to win this match and repeat what we achieved in 2007 and qualify to the final.”

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed from Melbourne, Australia.

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