The Contenders: Group B
Jiangyin: Only seven days remain until the AFC U23 Championship China 2018 kicks off and the-AFC.com continues its profile of the 16 teams with the four sides in Group B, where defending champions Japan are among the contenders.
Best finish: Champions (2016)
How they qualified: Runners-up – Group J
Defending champions Japan will look to retain the title they lifted in Qatar two years ago when their come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Korea Republic saw the young Samurai Blue crowned champions.
Japan were eliminated in the last eight of the inaugural tournament in Oman in 2014 but, with 2016 Olympic Games qualification up for grabs, returned in style two years ago.
The East Asians edged DPR Korea 1-0 in their tournament opener before a comprehensive 4-0 win over Thailand and a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia completed a perfect group stage record.
After a goalless 90 minutes against the Islamic Republic of Iran in the quarter-finals, the Samurai Blue netted three times, including two superb Shoya Nakajima strikes, to advance.
The semi-final proved an equally challenging task against Iraq but Riki Harakawa’s late goal secured a 2-1 win, a place in the final and a spot at Rio 2016.
Regional rivals Korea Republic awaited in the final in Doha, where Kwon Chang-hoon and Jin Sung-wook put the South Koreans two goals to the good.
But two goals in two minutes midway through the second half from Takuma Asano and Shinya Yajima saw Japan restore parity before Asano netted the winner with nine minutes remaining.
With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo on the horizon, there can be little doubt that a starlet-filled Japan side will be on their way to China 2018.
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2016)
How they qualified: Winners – Group G
DPR Korea head into the AFC U23 Championship looking to build on a quarter-final appearance two years ago in Qatar.
After exiting at the group stage of the inaugural edition, DPR Korea bounced back from a 1-0 defeat to Japan in their opener in Doha to claim an action-packed 3-3 tie against Saudi Arabia thanks to Jang Kuk-chol’s equaliser five minutes from time.
A 2-2 draw with Thailand then saw the East Asians edge into the quarter-finals based on a superior head-to-head record against the Southeast Asians and Saudi Arabia.
In the last eight, the young Chollima were drawn to face hosts Qatar and fell behind to Akram Afif’s early penalty.
Despite spirited attempts to level the scores, it looked like the one-goal lead would be enough for the Qataris until So Kyong-jin netted in the added time.
But the DPR Korea joy was short lived as Ali Assadella restored the hosts’ lead inside the first minute of extra-time and Qatar held on to win 2-1.
DPR Korea’s qualifying campaign for 2018 got off to a rocky start as they surprisingly drew with Hong Kong in Pyongyang but big wins over Chinese Taipei and Laos saw them progress as group winners.
Best finish: Group stage (2016)
How they qualified: Runners-up – Group H
Thailand secured their second appearance at the AFC U23 Championship as the best-placed runners-up from a qualifying group that included ASEAN rivals Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Mongolia.
As hosts of the qualifying Group H, the young War Elephants surprisingly drew their opening fixture 1-1 with Mongolia, but bounced back with a 3-0 win over Malaysia. A 0-0 draw with Indonesia then saw the Thais claim second spot and a berth at China 2018 as one of the highest-placed runners-up.
Thailand will be looking to better their performance at Qatar 2016 when they were eliminated in the group stage, despite beginning positively with a hard-fought 1-1 draw with 2014 finalists Saudi Arabia.
A testing second outing against eventual champions Japan resulted in a 4-0 defeat, but Thailand still had a chance of progression ahead of their final group game with DPR Korea.
Kim Yong-il opened the scoring for the East Asians but Narubadin Weerawatnodom replied on the half-hour mark for Thailand.
A Thossawat Limwannasathian own goal gave DPR Korea the lead again, before Thai star Chanathip Songkrasin made it 2-2 with 12 minutes remaining as the sides shared the spoils.
The draw, though, turned out to be insufficient for Kiatisuk Senamuang’s men with DPR Korea edging through.
Best finish: Tournament debut
How they qualified: Winners – Group E
Set to make their AFC U23 Championship debut, Palestine produced a superb display in qualifying for the Finals in China to finish above regional rivals Jordan.
The Group E qualifying matches were hosted on home soil in Hebron, and one of the biggest crowds of the qualifying rounds witnessed a morale-boosting fightback after the hosts found themselves 2-0 down to Jordan inside 35 minutes.
Palestine had opened their account with a 2-2 draw with Tajikistan and, after the Tajiks beat Bangladesh 3-1 hours prior to the Palestine-Jordan match, defeat to the Jordanians would have left an uphill task to qualify.
The hosts pulled one back before the interval, and the second half witnessed a superb Palestinian fightback as continuous pressure on the Jordanian goal resulted in a 66th-minute Mahmoud Yousef equaliser.
With the game there for the taking, Jordan custodian Rafat Alrabie failed collect a high ball from a free-kick in the 75th minute and substitute Bahaa Wridat was on hand to coolly side-foot the ball into the empty net to the delight of the home crowd.
Striker Mahmoud Abuwarda scored a hat-trick in the team’s final qualifier in a 3-0 victory over Bangladesh to advance as group winners as Palestine booked their place at the tournament for the first time.