Revitalised South Korea steeled for final with Socceroos

If there was any doubt as to what the 2015 AFC Asian Cup means to South Korea's players, just take a look at the final whistle reactions to the 2-0 semifinal win over Iraq on Monday.

Hugs, looks to the skies, a fist pump here, a religious gesture there and the occasional collapse on the haunches to take it all in – we saw the full range.

A first continental title since 1960 is within reach. The country has slowly been getting excited and almost ten million watched the game with Iraq. 

About 18 million are expected to tune in for the final. These are figures not seen since those heady days of 2002. There is even a growing swell of opinion that should the trophy return to Seoul for the first time in 55 years then the players should be granted exemption from their 21-month mandatory military service - though this is unlikely.

The failure at the FIFA World Cup last June and the fall out from it all was a painful period. It is hard to argue that Korea is a football country but the national team has always occupied a special place in the hearts of the population. 

Not everyone is a fan of the beautiful game but almost all know what is going on with the Taeguk Warriors and take pride in their achievements.

Last June seemed to change all that but now, at the very least, this tournament has restored some faith and plenty of interest. Defeat on Saturday in Sydney with the trophy shining on the sidelines would be painful but the tournament has already been a success. 

The nation may not quite be completely back in love with the team but it is looking through some past photo albums, smiling at the memories and thinking about picking up the phone.

The new team is as much about Lee Jang-hyub, almost unknown two months ago, as Son Heung-min, perhaps now becoming the biggest Asian star there is. 

Uli Stielike, who came to the country at the end of September with no prior knowledge of country or culture, saw something in Lee, a striker who was struggling to find the target in the second division, that few others did as he searched for replacements for injured attackers. 

Plenty expressed doubts but the German has been repaid with two goals so far, the winner against the Socceroos and the opener against Iraq.

Korea sees the key to a sixth successive victory, or at least to preserving this amazing and unexpected clean sheet record, as not allowing Australia to make use of its aerial prowess. 

Full-backs Cha Du-ri and Kim Jin-su, impressive so far, will have their work cut out. Former Tottenham Hotspur full-back Lee Young-pyo said that a running and jumping Tim Cahill can be impossible to stop so it's imperative to cut the supply. 

Son Heung-min has a part to play in this and can give Ivan Franjic, assuming he is fit, too much to handle defensively to think about going forward.

Despite a few hairy moments against Iraq, goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon now has complete ownership of the number one jersey, a promotion from being number three, at best, for the past few years. 

The central defensive partnership of Kim Young-gwon and Kwak Tae-hwi has held firm and the team has dealt well with the fact that two of its biggest stars Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol were home injured at the end of the group stage. If elegant captain Ki Seung-yeung can maintain his excellent form then Korea has a real chance. And then there is always the explosive Son Heung-min.

This has been quite a turnaround since the failure of June 2014. Few expected a team in complete transition, almost chaos, with a new coach and a skeptical public and media would be so close to glory. 

Whatever happens, a place in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup final means that South Korea can look forward with enthusiasm and optimism. But a win? That would be something else...