Asia's final qualification for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament at Rio 2016 begins at the start of the new year with 16 sides vying for a place in the global showpiece this August. Having progressed from last March's initial qualifiers, these battle-hardened sides are expected to spare nothing as they aim to live up to the increasing expectations in the AFC U-23 Championship, which runs from 12 to 30 January, hosted by Qatar.
The second edition of the tournament is set to attract growing attention considering the fact that it doubles as the qualifier for the Olympic Games. With just three spots up for grabs, the competition will be ferocious. All the more interesting is the line-up of the tournament, which features not only traditional heavyweights like Korea Republic, Japan and Iraq but also the likes of Vietnam, Thailand and Yemen, all of whom impressed during qualifying nine months ago. FIFA.com previews the upcoming competition and takes a closer look at the contenders eager to take a trip to Rio.
Teams to beat
One of Asia's most accomplished sides at this level, Shin Tae-Yong's Korea Republic enter the competition targeting their tenth Olympic appearance. With their bronze-medal performance at London 2012 still fresh in their minds, the young Taeguk Warriors have fixed their sights on nothing less than an Olympic return. They have remained undefeated in the build-up to the campaign, including a surprise 1-1 draw against France and twice defeating fellow participants Australia.
The same can be said of Japan, whose enviable past record includes a bronze medal at Mexico 1968. Under Makoto Teguramori, the Samurai Blue youth won all three matches, scoring ten times and conceding none as they progressed to the final competition as group winners. They beat Syria 2-1 in a pre-tournament warm-up with Austrian-based forward Takumi Minamino completing a brace.
Featuring eight European-based players, Aurelio Vidmar's Australia are indeed star-studded. They eased through qualifiers with an unblemished record averaging five goals per game but they have since failed to relive that form in the warm-ups, losing to Qatar 3-1 before being held to a 1-1 draw by Iran. The recent results have served as a warning for the Olyroos, but Vidmar is anticipating Australia returning to their winning ways.
Despite earning automatic qualification as hosts, Qatar are expecting to seal their third Olympic appearance. Coaching the team is none other than Felix Sanchez, who previously took the country to the title in the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship and thus earned qualification for last year's FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
"I expect all my 23 players to do their bit well to help the team go through," said the 40-year-old Spaniard. "Qatar is putting in a lot of effort in youth development. The players will learn a lot from these competitions. And hopefully, Qatar will reach a very good level before the World Cup in 2022."
The group stage offers enticing match-ups as one can imagine. The tournament curtain-raiser pits Qatar against an ambitious China PR squad, which features a series of national senior team players. The hosts can take heart from their senior side's 1-0 home win against the same opponents in the ongoing Asian 2018 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers. The visitors will, meanwhile, do their utmost to prove themselves worthy contenders on the continental scene.
Saudi Arabia are likely to pose a big threat to Japan in the group considering that the west Asians stormed into the tournament final in the inaugural edition three years ago only to lose out to eventual champions Iraq. Of course, both sides cannot underestimate Korea DPR, who edged Thailand on goal difference as they progressed from the first stage of qualification as group winners.
Korea Republic's status as favourites will be tested by Iraq, who ran out 1-0 winners in the two sides’ semi-final meeting in the aforementioned inaugural campaign. Elsewhere, Australia take on Jordan in what will be the group’s final match. For fans from both countries, it is definitely an interesting match considering the fast-developed rivalry between their senior sides over recent years.
Players to watch
A host of youth talents are expected to set the Asian stage alight. Having finished the team's top-scorer with five goals in qualifying, Brisbane Roar forward Jamie Maclaren aims to continue his emergence and help Australia through. In-form Red Bull Salzburg marksman Minamino shoulders the goal-scoring tasks for Japan while Bayer Leverkusen man Ryu Seung-Woo will provide the drive in the Korea Republic midfield despite missing the qualifying campaign.
Qatar can count on their proven internationals Ahmed Yasser, Ali Asad, Abdelkarim Hassan and Mohammed Muntari, while Uzbekistan will look to Pakhtakor hotshot Igor Sergeev, an established star who is scoring regularly for both club and country.
Group A: Qatar, Syria, Iran, China PR
Group B: Saudi Arabia, Japan, Korea DPR, Thailand
Group C: Iraq, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, Yemen
Group D: Jordan, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam