China juniors roar back to top Asia
China only just edged out northeastern neighbours Korea DPR in a hard-fought 1-0 final to claim the laurels at the Asian U-17 Championship on Saturday, recapturing the continental title after a 12-year drought. Qatar claimed crucial third after defeating Iran 2-1, and will join the two finalists as Asian representatives at the FIFA U-17 World Championship next year in Peru.
The Asian Championship that ran from 5 to 19 September produced a series of magic moments and chaotic drama. Hosts Japan went out poorly in the group stage, while defending champions Korea Republic stumbled in the quarter-finals, losing out to their brothers from the north. Aggressive Qatar emerged hands-down as the most potent side, scoring 15 goals in just six games.
In-style China stretched in the final
Eventual finalists China and Korea DPR were both considered dark horses at the outset of the competition. But after eliminating favourites Iran and holders Korea Republic respectively, they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt their status as rightful regional powers.
Pak Hui-sam's Korean charges took the initial edge in the opening minutes of the final at the Fujieda Stadium. But it was China - with the psychological superiority of their 2-1 victory over Korea DPR in a previous meeting in the group stages - that kept their cool to hold the free-attacking Koreans at bay.
The North Koreans had a golden opportunity to break the stalemate after 31 minutes, but Choe Myong-ho's fierce strike splattered tragically against the woodwork. And an even better chance came only one minute later when Pak Chol-min rounded goalkeeper Wang Dalei. But after hesitating, a gang of Chinese defenders roared back to block the path to goal.
|Free-scoring Qatar celebrate yet another goal|
"We got better with each game, and I couldn't be prouder of how the team played," remarked China boss Zhang Ning after the final. "We got stronger and stronger, and more importantly, we proved we can play with individual style and flair."
Qatari young guns blaze
Qatar managed to breeze past Iraq in their opening group match and then showed a glimpse of their lethal finishing ability with a 6-1 mauling of befuddled Bangladesh. Rajon Mia put Bangladesh ahead after only nine minutes and the South Asians defended the lead successfully into the second half. However Ali Hassan Afef's equaliser changed everything, as Qatar went on to score five unanswered goals in a 31- minute span.
After yet another goal-littered 4-3 win over Kuwait, Qatar moved on to the semi-final, where they were nudged out by DPR Korea in a contentious penalty shootout. But they managed to right the ship in the all-important third-place match, where Yusef Ahmad Ali bagged a brace to see off heavily favoured Iran.
Starlets shine through
The tournament saw a good number of young Asian talent emerging for the first time on the international stage. Yang Xu, who topped China's scoring chart with three goals, proved himself a speedy striker with great ability in the air. And his teammate Wang Weilong, who scored the winner against DPR Korea in the final, looked a lion at the centre of defence.
Choe Myong-ho of DPR Korea may well have proven himself the competition's top performer. Given the nickname "Korean Ronaldo" by Chinese media, he was a delight to behold. He scored the third goal in the 4-1 win over Thailand and always looked menacing in the final with China.
Qatar's Yusef Ahmad Ali is a goal getter with a great future ahead of him, scoring no less than seven times in six games. To say he has a nose for goal would be a laughable understatement, as his average in the competition amply proves.