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The Contenders: Group A


Monday, January 1, 2018
Japan v China PR - AFC U23 Championship Qualifiers (2)

Changzhou: With 2018 now upon us, the Asian Football Confederation is just over a week away from its first tournament of the year as the AFC U23 Championship in China begins on January 9, ahead of which we look at the 16 competing teams, starting with Group A.  


China PR

Best finish: Group stage (2014, 2016)

How they qualified: As hosts

Having exited at the group stage of the past two editions of the competition without picking up a point, China will be seeking an improvement this time out on home soil.

After a disappointing campaign in Oman in 2014, the East Asians were intent on a better performance at the second edition in Qatar in 2016.

Drawn alongside Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the hosts, China got off to a perfect start when Liao Lisheng broke the deadlock against Qatar, only to suffer a 3-1 loss.

Liao opened the scoring once more against Syria but the West Asians hit back to win 3-1, before a 3-2 defeat to Iran concluded a tough time in Doha for China.

Despite qualifying as hosts for the 2018 edition, China also took part in Group J of the qualification campaign in Phnom Penh.

A 0-0 draw against hosts Cambodia was followed by a 2-0 win over the Philippines before China impressively saw off defending champions Japan 2-1 to top the standings.

The goalscorers were two players who could well be leading lights at China 2018, Shanghai SIPG winger Wei Shihao and Beijing Renhe defender Deng Hanwen, who have both been capped for the senior team.

Leading the line ahead of them is likely to be Werder Bremen loanee Zhang Yuning, who has been slated as the future of China’s attack.


Qatar

Best finish: Fourth (2016)

How they qualified: Winners – Group C

It is testament to the quality in Qatar's youth set up that a fourth-place finish at the 2016 AFC U23 Championship on home soil was deemed a disappointment as defeat in the third-place play-off to Iraq meant they failed to qualify for the Olympics.

The core of Felix Sanchez's squad for the 2018 edition is formed by players who were part of the 2016 campaign and have been coached by Sanchez since the U-19 category.

Led by the likes of Akram Afif and Ahmed Moein, this group of players first shone at the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship, where substitute Afif headed the winner in a 1-0 victory against DPR Korea in the final and skipper Moein was named the tournament's MVP.

The strong performance at the 2016 AFC U23 Championship was proof of the gradual progress of a generation that is key to Qatar's plans of developing a strong squad for 2022, when they will host the FIFA World Cup.

In addition to Afif and Moein, the squad features Almoez Ali, who has scored for Al Duhail in the AFC Champions League, and Assim Madibo, who currently plays alongside Afif for Belgian first division side KAS Eupen.

Placed in Group C of the qualifiers, Qatar defeated Turkmenistan and India, before drawing with Syria to secure top spot and automatic qualification for the finals.


Uzbekistan

Best finish: Group stage (2014, 2016)

How they qualified: Winners – Group D

Uzbekistan qualified for the AFC U23 Championship by topping Group D with a 100 percent record after beating hosts UAE 2-0 in Al Ain.

Despite having progressed to the two previous editions, the Uzbeks have yet to reach the knockout stages, but will hope with former Uzbekistan head coach Ravshan Khaydarov in charge, things can be different this time.

Two years ago in Doha, the young White Wolves lost their opening two matches to Korea Republic and Iraq, before defeating Yemen 3-1 after their exit had already been confirmed.

This time round in the Group D qualifying matches in the UAE, Uzbekistan won their opening game 3-1 against Lebanon and then beat Nepal 2-0 to set up a winner-takes-all clash with the hosts.

Both sides were level on six points coming into the third and final match, but the UAE had a better goal difference and knew a draw would be enough to see them qualify. The hosts had looked odds-on to reach the finals as group winners with the score goalless as the midway stage of the second half approached.

However, Uzbek defender Islomjon Kobilov headed in Jasurbek Yakhshiboev’s corner on 67 minutes and, despite the home side’s best efforts to find an equaliser, the Uzbeks made sure of their qualification for the 2018 AFC U23 Championship with a second from Javokir Sidikov in the last minute of the game.



Oman

Best finish: Group stage (2014)

How they qualified: Winners – Group A

Hosts of the inaugural edition of the competition, Oman could be among the surprise contenders at the 2018 AFC U23 Championship in China as they aim to build on their impressive qualifying campaign where they topped Group A, ahead of powerhouse Iran.

Four years ago on home soil, the Sultanate defeated Myanmar 4-0 in the opening game but exited after defeats to Jordan and Korea Republic, before missing out on the 2016 AFC U23 Championship.

In the qualifying tournament for this edition, in the Kyrgyz Republic, Hamad Al Azani’s team were led by promising forwards Muhsin Al Ghassani and Jameel Al Yahmadi.

In their opening game against the hosts, Oman were a goal down at the interval but levelled through Al Ghassani’s header just after the hour. They then scored four times in the final 10 minutes as Al Ghassani completed his hat-trick and a stunning turnaround in a 5-1 victory.

With opponents Islamic Republic Iran having already beaten the hosts in their group opener, the winners of the final group match would qualify for the 2018 AFC U23 Championship and it was the double act of Al Yahmadi and Al Ghassani who came up with the goals to clinch a commendable 2-0 win and seal Oman’s return to the finals for the first time since hosting the inaugural edition.