Sydney: South Korea will be praying lightning does not strike twice when they face Iraq in the Asian Cup semi-finals on Monday, having limped to the last four battered and bruised.
The Koreans have failed to win Asia`s showcase tournament since 1960 -- a curious anomaly for a country with a proud footballing pedigree and who famously reached the last four of the World Cup in 2002.
But as coach Uli Stielike tries to rouse his injury-hit squad for Monday`s clash, memories of Iraq`s fairytale run to the 2007 Asian Cup title will haunt the Red Devils.
South Korea were stunned on penalties in the semi-finals by Iraq, who went on to beat Saudi Arabia in the final in Jakarta, talisman Younis Mahmoud heading the winner to bring a small measure of comfort to the war-torn country.
"There is a lot of history with Korea," said Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishil. "There have been a lot of positive results for Iraq. We have one less day to recover than South Korea, but all four teams left now have the same chance to lift the trophy."
Iraq`s preparations will not have been helped after Iran protested to tournament organisers that the Iraqis had fielded an ineligible player in Friday`s quarter-final defeat, alleging that Alaa Abdulzehra had committed a doping violation last year.
Stielike will try to patch up his team of walking wounded and hope South Korea`s golden boy Son Heung-Min can repeat his midweek heroics, when he struck twice in extra time in the 2-0 quarter-final win over Uzbekistan.
The mercurial forward, dubbed "Sonaldo" by his team mates at German club Bayer Leverkusen, produced a superhuman display, despite not having fully recovered from a flu bug, and left the pitch on a stretcher.Stielike`s wish that Iraq and Iran also battle each other to a standstill came true as the bitter rivals tore furiously into each other in an ill-tempered game in Canberra, Iraq prevailing 7-6 on penalties after a helter-skelter 3-3 draw.
With injuries ending the involvement of winger Lee Chung-Yong and midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, and Son struggling for fitness, Stielike is monitoring daily medical reports from his team doctors and may have to tinker with his side once more.
"It`s not an excuse but we are missing two or three big players," said the German. "No other team has had to show such mental strength and sacrifice as our boys. The pressure the national team is under in Korea has given us some mental problems. Now there`s even more pressure on us to reach the final."
The prize awaiting the winner is a championship decider against either hosts Australia or the United Arab Emirates in Sydney on January 31 but with physical and mental exhaustion taking its toll on both sides -- and the stakes so high -- Monday`s game could be a cagey affair.
A moment of magic from Son or Mahmoud, who chipped in an audacious `panenka` spot-kick in the shoot-out against Iran, could decide it.
"We have a young squad and he is our leader," Shenaishil said of his talisman. "He`s the type of player that opponents hate to play against."