RANGSIT -- South Korea reached cloud nine on Wednesday, as they made it to their ninth consecutive Olympic men's football tournament.
The young Taeguk Warriors shut down Australia 2-0 in the semifinals of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Championship in Thailand. This AFC event doubles as the regional qualifying tournament for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the top three teams from here will be competing in Japn this summer. With Wednesday's win, South Korea assured themselves a spot in the top three.
South Korea have played in every Olympics since 1988 in Seoul.
South Korea hit the goal post three times before midfielder Kim Dae-won netted the first goal in the 56th minute at Thammasat Stadium, and substitute Lee Dong-gyeong scored his second goal of the tournament as an insurance 20 minutes later.
South Korea will face Saudi Arabia in Sunday's final at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, starting at 7:30 p.m. local time, or 9:30 p.m. in Seoul.
Australia will play Uzbekistan in the third-place match on Saturday, with the winner grabbing the last remaining ticket to Tokyo.
South Korea came within inches of opening the scoring in the 24th minute, when forward Oh Se-hun rattled the woodwork with a hard shot from just outside the box.
The two teams traded some close chances in the final minute of the first half. For Australia, Dylan Ryan's volley on a loose ball bounced wide right of the target. At the other end, Kim Dae-won danced around three defenders to launch a shot that sailed past the right post.
Kim Dae-won (Yonhap)
And Kim picked up right where he left off to begin the second half. About 30 seconds into the period, Kim forced goalkeeper Tom Glover to make a difficult diving save with a hard shot that bounced in front of the goalkeeper.
About a minute later, substitute Lee Dong-jun came charging in from the right wing and rolled a shot just past the far post. Then in the 51st, Kim was at it again, as his shot from the center of the box missed to the left.
Moments later, South Korea hit the post for the second time, as Jeong Tae-wook's header bounced in front of the net and went off the left post. Lee Dong-jun failed to control the rebound in the goalmouth as Australia managed to clear the ball out of harm's way.
Kim was finally rewarded with a goal in the 56th minute, but not before the team clanged another shot off the post.
This time, Lee You-hyeon's attempt from the right side struck the left post, and the ball popped right back to the wide open Kim, the Johnny on the Spot who easily put the rebound into the gaping net.
Then Lee Dong-gyeong, who'd scored a last-gasp goal to beat Jordan 2-1 in the quarterfinals, gave South Korea some breathing room with a brilliant strike in the 76th. Lee took Won Du-jae's headed pass near the right edge of the box and cut toward the center to send a shot between two defenders and past Glover.
Kim Dae-won said it was "an honor" to score a goal in a victory that sent his team to the Olympics.
"I'd been stressing out because I hadn't scored a goal in this tournament," the midfielder said. "That stress is all gone now."
Lee Dong-gyeong pulled into a four-way tie for the team lead with two goals, joined there by two forwards, Oh Se-hun and Cho Gue-sung, and midfielder Lee Dong-jun. There are four players tied for the tournament-high three goals, but only one of them, Islom Kobilov of Uzbekistan, has a match left to play.
"I'll obviously try to convert my chances if I get them," Lee Dong-gyeong said. "But I'll focus on trying to help my teammates win the scoring title."
Australia, who managed just one shot in the first half, couldn't turn the tide in the second half and got blanked for the first time in the competition.
The winning coach, Kim Hak-bum, admitted the burden of having to qualify for the Olympics weighed on him, and he trusted his players to take care of business in the semifinals.
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't feel any pressure, but I couldn't show it to my players" Kim said. "We could have had another opportunity to qualify in the third-place match, but we all wanted to get it done today."
Kim said he was pleased with accomplishing the primary goal of qualifying for the Olympics, and the next objective is to win the tournament outright.
"We'll keep marching on," the coach said. "Our substitutes did a great job off the bench, and now it's time for us to prepare for the final."
As for the multiple goal posts that his players hit, Kim said, "I didn't really think much of that. I felt we could still score later on and win the match." (Yonhap)