asia afc u23 qatar rio olympics

AFC U23 Preview

The Asian Under 23 Championship starts in Qatar today, the prize for the top three teams is a ticket to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

South Korea, Japan and the UAE were Asia’s representatives at London 2012.  There is no standout team this time around with several  strong contenders capable of qualification.

Here we analyse the teams and the star players of what promises to be an intriguing tournament.

Group A

 

Qatar

The hosts are the team to beat in Group A.  This squad are very much part of the Gulf nations’ 2022 vision, preparing players for the year they host the World Cup.  Spanish coach Felix Sanchez can call upon full internationals like Ali Asad and Ahmed Yasser but striker Mohammed Muntari is his most intriguing player.

Muntari, 19, was born in Ghana and schooled at the Nii Lamptey academy.  He moved to Qatar in 2012 and was nationalised in 2014.  He has impressed at senior international level scoring five goals in eight appearances.

He is tall (194cm), strong, quick and a good finisher.  It is easy to see why Ghana feel so aggrieved that he chose to represent Qatar.  Defences in the UAE will have to perform well to contain him.

Qatar’s defence will be marshalled by the formidable Abdelkarim Hassan (22).  Not many attackers will get the better of the centre back who already has 41 full international caps.

China

The most interesting name in an uninspiring China squad is Xu Xin.  The 21 year old midfielder spent five years with Atletico Madrid before joining Guangzhou Evergrande last month.  He is a tidy midfielder and China will need him to show some quality if they are to make it out of the group.

Other names to watch include 19-year-old forward Zhang Yuning who signed for Vitesse Arnhem in 2015, and winger Liu Binbin (22), defender Shi  Ke (23) and midfielder Liao Lishieng (22) who all have senior international experience.

Syria

Hopes will rest on the shoulders of striker Omar Khribin.  The 21-year-old Al-Dhafra forward has scored 11 goals in 25 senior internationals and scored six times in qualifying for this tournament.

 Iran

The AFC U23 is not a full FIFA tournament and clubs are not forced to release their players.  Iran have felt this most forcibly being denied the services of the excellent Alireza Jahanbakhsh of AZ Alkmaar and FC Rostov pair Sardour Azmoun and Saeid Ezatolahi.

In their place Iran will look to winger Mehdi Torabi of Saipa as their best hope of reaching the knockout stages.  The 22 year old has already scored three goals since making his senior international debut in July.  He is a tricky player with a good turn of pace and could cause problems for Group A defences.  Amir Arsalan Motahari (22) is a promising striker who has been prolific at this level.

Captain Rouzbeh Cheshmi has been in good form for Esteghlal this season and is a technically accomplished central defender or defensive midfielder.   Calm and elegant in possession he will be watched closely by scouts in the UAE.

Mohsen Karimi, 21 and also from Esteghlal, is a tidy midfielder who has really come on over the last 12 months.  Goalkeeper Mohammadreza Akhbari, 22, is highly promising and performing very well at Tractor Sazi on loan from Saipa.

Can Iran do well despite their high profile absentees?

GROUP B

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis were second in 2013 AF C Under 22 championship.  An experienced squad will be one of the most organised and difficult opponents in Qatar.

In diminutive midfielder, Fahad Al-Muwallad, Saudi have one of the most exciting players in the tournament.  On his day his pace and trickery are mesmerising.  The 21-year-old is a full international and is regarded as one of the best prospects in the Gulf region.

Mostafa Al-Bassas is another midfielder with a burgeoning reputation.  Dynamic and clever the 22-year-old has already played nine senior internationals and looks set for a long international career.

Thailand

Thailand captain and talisman Chanathip Songkrasin (22)  has a heavy cold going into the tournament.  Without the talented midfielder the Thais are much weaker.  They need him fit and on-form.

They are steadily improving but will they have the firepower to get anything from three of Asia’s stronger nations?  Their opening match against the Saudis will be crucial.

North Korea

North Korea have enjoyed great success at recent AFC youth tournaments.  As usual  they will be strong in defence and look to set pieces and counter attacks for goals.  Will that be enough however?

They will be frustrating and obdurate opponents and their opening game with Japan promises to be a fiery encounter.  North Korea kicked and feigned their way to a bruising penalty-shootout win in the 2014 AFC Under 19s.  Japan will be hungry for revenge.

Japan

This is not a vintage Japan selection but unusually they have plenty of options in attack.  Takumi Minamino (20) of Red Bull Sulzburg and Yuya Kubo (22) of Young Boys Berne have adjusted to life in European football well while Takuma Asano (21) is the current J League young player of the year.

Minamino is in fine form this season and made his full Japan debut in October.   Kubo is an intriguing forward with clever movement and, while never prolific, is an excellent finisher.  Asano is direct and explosive, Japan will look for his running to stretch teams.

Will Japan play all three together?

Musashi Suzuki (21) and Ado Onaiwu (20) are raw but full of pace and power and offer options Japan have lacked in the past.

Captain Wataru Endo (22) has just completed a big transfer to Urawa Reds.  He is a combative defensive midfielder, comfortable in possession, rarely out of position and captained former club Shonan Bellmere at 19.  Has already played for Japan and senior coach Vahid Halilhodzic is a fan.

A lot will rest on centre backs Takuya Iwanami (21) and Naomichi Ueda (21).  They have long been regarded as solutions in what remains a problem position for Japan national teams.  And both have trained with the full Japan squad.  They can be prone to distraction and Japan will need them to play well if they are to progress.

GROUP C

South Korea

The London 2012 Bronze medallists will be sorely disappointed if they fail to qualify for Rio 2016.  They have fine Olympic pedigree and some very interesting players in their squad.

Hwang Hee-chan impressed massively at FC Liefring on-loan from Red Bull Sulzburg in the first half of this season. He ended 2015 with his parent club.

The 19-year-old was regarded as talented but somewhat lazy player in his youth but since his move to Europe last January he has really blossomed.  His industrious playing style has been compared to Luis Suarez and he has scored 11 goals already this season.  He looks destined for bigger things.

Chang Hoon Kwon (21) is a stylish playmaker and is already establishing himself at full international level.  A move to Europe cannot be far away for the Suwon Bluewings midfielder.

Iraq

The excellent left back Ali Adnan was not released by Udinese but Iraq still have a squad filled with quality.

Mercurial playmaker Human Tariq is one of several stars from the 2013 Under 20 World Cup semi-finals side.  Iraq will need him to perform strongly if they are to make it out of a difficult group.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan have performed well at recent youth tournaments and will be a difficult team to beat in Qatar.  If underestimated they could surprise.

Their side is built around attacking midfielder Jamshid Iskanderov (22) and striker Igor Sergeev (22).  The Pakhtakor Pashkent pair will be supported by Ikromjon Alibaev (22) another tidy midfielder to look out for.

Yemen

On paper Yemen have one of the weakest, and youngest squads, in the competition.

Forwards Sulaiman Hezam (19) and Ahmed Al-Sarori (18) could impress but Yemen will do well to avoid ending the tournament pointless.  Anything more than three defeats will be regarded as an achievement for a well-drilled, but technically limited, side.

GROUP D

Australia

Already denied two of their most high profile U23 players, Brad Smith of Liverpool and Roda JC’s Daniel De Silva, Australia were dealt a further blow when Lazio withdrew Chris Ikonomidis on the eve of the tournament.

These are big pills to swallow but Australia will feel that they have enough quality to make an impression on the tournament.

In midfielder Mustafa Amini (22) they have a player desperate to prove himself.  After quitting Borussia Dortmund he is impressing in Denmark with Randers.  Technically excellent, determined and quick, Amini could shine in Qatar.

Australia will look to Jamie Maclaren (22) for goals.  The Brisbane Roar striker has been in excellent form and will be closely watched by defenders in Qatar.  Roar teammate Brandon Borello (20) is another promising striker.

United Arab Emirates

This UAE squad have a lot to live up to.  The 2012 squad impressed greatly at the London Olympics.

This is not a ‘Golden Generation’ but UAE do have quality.

Midfielder Ali Salim (22) is a strong midfielder and forward Mohammed Alakberi (19) is promising.

A lot will depend on their first match with Australia but UAE will fancy their chances of reaching the knockout stages at the very least.

Jordan

Jordan qualified impressively but will have to fight hard to make it out of a tricky group.

Baha Faisal Mohammad (20) played a big role in their qualification, he scored a hat trick against Kuwait, and Jordan will look to him for goals in Qatar.   In 15-year-old defender Abdallah Mousa Musal Jordan have the youngest player at the tournament.

Vietnam

Vietnam have made great strides in recent years.  Japanese coach Toshiya Miura has them playing a direct, high-temp game and while still not a force they have several promising players.

Nguyen Cong Phuong (20) scored four times during qualification and is a lively forward.  He has just joined Mito Hollyhock in Japan.  Lương Xuân Trường (20) has recently transferred to the Korean League and is a neat, technical midfielder.  He is an excellent passer and if afforded time can unlock defences with his creativity and vision.

This will be a learning experience for Vietnam but they could surprise if not taken seriously.


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