The Contenders: Group C
Changshu: The countdown to the AFC U23 Championship China 2018 continues as the-AFC.com profiles the four participating teams in Group C, where inaugural winners Iraq are placed alongside Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.
Best finish: Champions (2014)
How they qualified: Winners – Group B
Iraq boast one of the proudest records at the AFC U23 Championship, having won the inaugural tournament in 2014 and finished in third place two years later to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After topping a tough group comprising Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and China in Oman at the beginning of 2014, Iraq defeated East Asian powerhouses Japan and Korea Republic – each game ending 1-0 – to progress to the final, where Mohanad Abdulraheem scored the only goal against Saudi Arabia as yet another 1-0 victory secured continental glory.
Two years later in Qatar, and with a place in the Olympics up for grabs, Iraq navigated the group stage before beating the United Arab Emirates after extra time in the last eight.
A 1-0 defeat to Japan ensued, but the competition ended on a high note as Abdulraheem and Aymen Hussein scored in a 2-1 win over the hosts to advance to Rio, where they secured a commendable draw with hosts Brazil.
Reappointed as coach in late 2016, Abdul Ghani Shahad has built a new squad around three youngsters with significant international experience: right-back Alaa Mahawi, midfielder Amjed Attwan and Hussein, who was appointed captain.
The West Asians qualified for the 2018 AFC U23 Championship with a 100 percent record after wins over Afghanistan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia claimed top spot in Group B.
Best finish: Third (2014)
How they qualified: Runners-up – Group E
Jordan will look to build on their status as a force to reckon with at U-23 level, when they appear at their third straight AFC U23 Championship.
'Al Nashama' finished in third place at the inaugural event in Oman in 2014 before reaching the quarter-finals two years later.
Placed in Group D in 2016, Jordan began with a 3-1 win over Vietnam, before goalless draws with Australia and the United Arab Emirates saw the team progress as runners-up with an unbeaten record.
The quarter-finals would prove to be a different story as Jordan locked horns with Korea Republic, in what was a rematch of the third-place play-off from 2014 which had seen the West Asians triumph on penalties.
This time around, Korea Republic proved superior as a 1-0 win ended Jordan's dreams of making it to a first Olympic Games.
Jordan will now look to make amends for that disappointment when they travel to China, where Al Wehdat forward Baha’ Faisal is expected to be their key threat after being instrumental in qualifying.
Wins over Bangladesh and Tajikistan, either side of defeat to Palestine, was enough to see Jordan advance to China as one of the six best runners-up.
Best finish: Runners-up (2014)
How they qualified: Runners-up – Group B
Runners-up of the inaugural edition of the tournament, Saudi Arabia are one of the ten teams to qualify for the competition for the third time in a row. But a silver medal in Oman in 2014 was followed by a disappointing group stage exit for the Green Falcons in Qatar in 2016.
Al Nassr striker Abdulaziz Al Aryani leads the line for Saudi U-23 team. He scored three goals in the qualifiers as Saudi Arabia finished second in Group B after wins over Bahrain and Afghanistan were followed with a defeat against Iraq
Coach Daniel Tigali has a strong squad at his disposal, boosted with the inclusion of former England U-17 playmaker Mukhtar Ali, who is joined by US-based wide man Faris Abdi.
The duo, products of the national scouting committee set up earlier in the year, hope to use the tournament as a platform to impress the new national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
In the 2018 tournament, Saudi Arabia get a chance to avenge their qualifying defeat against Iraq, who also beat them in the final in 2014. Jordan and Malaysia complete the Group C line-up as the Saudis look to improve on their 2016 showing and reach the quarter-finals once more.
Best finish: Tournament debut
How they qualified: Winners – Group H
AFC U23 Championship debutants Malaysia will be stepping into the unknown when their China 2018 campaign kicks off against Iraq in Group C on January 10.
The Southeast Asians missed out on both Oman in 2014 and Qatar in 2016 but impressed in qualifying to reach the U-23 finals for the first time.
With the qualifiers hosted in Bangkok last July, the Malaysians got off to a superb start with a stunning 3-0 victory over neighbours Indonesia.
A 3-0 loss to hosts Thailand meant that the fate of the three Southeast Asian sides would go down to the wire, but Thanabalan Nadarajah and Syazwan Andik scored the goals as Malaysia secured top spot in Group H with a 2-0 victory over Mongolia.
A month later, Malaysia impressed further still at the Southeast Asian Games on home soil, chalking up four consecutive group stage victories to progress to the semi-finals.
Indonesia awaited in the semi-finals, where Thanabalan’s fourth of the tournament secured a 1-0 win and a place in the final against defending champions Thailand.
But Malaysia were forced to settle for the runners-up spot after an own-goal from Johor Darul Ta’zim goalkeeper Haziq Nadzli proved enough for the Thais to retain their title.