NEWCASTLE, Australia (Reuters) – Australia stunned United Arab Emirates with two goals in the first 14 minutes to reach a second successive Asian Cup final with a 2-0 victory at a rain-soaked Newcastle Stadium on Tuesday.
The Socceroos lost to Japan in the final four years ago and will now take on another East Asian power in South Korea in Sydney on Saturday looking to seal a first continental title at their third attempt.
Defenders led the way for the goal-happy hosts with Trent Sainsbury heading them in front after three minutes and Jason Davidson doubling the lead 11 minutes later.
“We knew the start was going to be really important,” coach Ange Postecoglou told reporters.
“Our intention was, we wanted to start really strong. Even if we didn’t score if we could put some pressure on without conceding, that was our best chance.”
The UAE stunned champions Japan in a penalty shootout to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 1996 but another upset never looked on the cards after Australia’s early salvo.
Attacking midfielder Omar Abdulrahman did nothing to detract from his burgeoning reputation with some delightful touches and striker Ahmed Khalil hit the woodwork in the first half but they were unable to create enough clear-cut chances.
The wet pitch probably did not help but Australia, with Matthew Spiranovic restored to the back four after suspension, also defended well enough to contain Abdulrahman and his team mates.
It was at the other end of the pitch that the Socceroos made the most important early impression to the delight of the majority of the crowd of 21,079.
Winger Robbie Kruse had his cross blocked after a burst down the right in the opening couple of minutes but when the corner came swinging into the box, Sainsbury rose unchallenged to head the ball into the net off the turf.
The UAE had their best chance in the 10th minute when Abdelaziz Sanqour broke down the right flank and crossed for striker Khalil to hit the ball first time against the base of the post.
Australia were straight back on the attack, though, and after another surge down the right the ball was heading towards Tim Cahill in front of goal.
Cahill was dragged back as he was attempting a shot and Mathew Leckie then had an effort blocked but the ball fell to Davidson, who calmly drilled it low and hard into the goal.
The Australians were in no mood to sit back and protect their lead but the UAE kept their shape and gradually worked their way back into the contest.
Khalil let fly with a long-range effort that flew past Mat Ryan and wide of the post in the 51st minute and Abdulrahman continued to probe for weaknesses in the Australian defence.
Massimo Luongo, Australia’s find of the tournament, had another impressive game in midfield and his curling effort came close to the target after 72 minutes.
The Socceroos continued to press forward and Leckie forced a save out of Majed Naser in the 75th minute, although the referee failed to see it and awarded a goal kick.
The UAE probably deserved a goal but Ali Ahmed Mabkhout had his shot smothered by Sainsbury in the dying minutes to leave his tally for the tournament at four.
“It is not easy to come back after conceding two goals through mistakes in the first 15 minutes,” UAE coach Mahdi Ali told reporters.
“We did our best but I think Australia deserved to win, they were the best team in the game.”