January 8 – Iraq and Australia kicked off the AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand with a 1-1 draw today. At press time, hosts Thailand were playing Bahrain. The 16 teams are playing for three slots at this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
The hosts have been drawn alongside Iraq, Australia and Bahrain in Group A. Up against two continental heavyweights, Thailand may struggle, but under coach Akira Nishino, one of five senior coaches doubling up in the U-23 role, they should have enough cunning to be competitive and dream of a spot in the knock-out phase in the 16-team tournament.
In Group B, Qatar will aim to go one step further under head coach Felix Sanchez. They finished fourth ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, falling just short of a ticket for Brazil. Two years ago, Qatar defeated South Korea to claim the bronze medal in the AFC U23 Championship.
This time Sanchez and his charges will need to get past Japan, Saudi Arabia and Syria to remain on course for their Olympic dream. The Japanese have brought another experimental squad as they gear up for the Olympic tournament on home soil to which they are already pre-qualified. At last year’s Copa America, coach Hajime Moriyasu also fielded an U-23 team.
Group C is the tournament’s group of death, uniting defending champions Uzbekistan, China, Iran and South Korea. The Uzbeks were the surprise winners of the finals two years ago defeating Vietnam in the decider, but will have to produce a minor miracle to get out of the group. They can count on six winners from 2017. Last year, Korea reached the final of the U-20 World Cup, but they will be without Valencia starlet Lee Kang-in, who won the Golden Ball in Poland.
Finally, Group D provides intriguing story lines as well. Vietnam will play Korea DPR, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Two years ago, Vietnam’s heart was broken in the final by Uzbekistan, but ever since the Vietnamese have enjoyed a remarkable rise in the Asian game under coach South Korean coach and former assistant of Guus Hiddink, Park Hang-seo, who will lead the U-23 team in Thailand as well. Vietnam finished fourth at the 2018 Asian Games, triumphed in the AFF Suzuki Cup and reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup last January.
Bangkok, Songkhla and Buriram will host the matches with the final slated for January 26 at the Rajamangala National Stadium in the Thai capital.
Group A: Thailand, Australia, Bahrain, Iraq
Group B: Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria
Group C: Uzbekistan, China, Iran, South Korea
Group D: Vietnam, Korea DPR, Joran, UAE
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1579972968labto1579972968ofdlr1579972968owedi1579972968sni@o1579972968fni1579972968