No one expects the AFC Youth Championship finals to be easy, particularly when the competition acts as the qualifying campaign for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007. However, there were a few grins on the faces of the representatives of defending champions Korea Republic after they had been drawn into Group A alongside hosts India, Kyrgyzstan and Jordan on Saturday. The draw, conducted at the Hotel Hindustan International, Calcutta, India, looks to be a good one for the Taeguk Warriors who are looking to their record 12th continental title.
The tournament to be staged in India from 29 October to 12 November also sees traditional powers Saudi Arabia pitted against regional rivals Iraq, Malaysia and Vietnam in Group D, while Japan will have to battle it out against Iran and Korea DPR in Group C for one of the two places in the knockout stage. AFC newcomers Australia were also given a tough draw as they were drawn against China, UAE and Thailand in Group B.
With the four semi-finalists qualifying for Canada, the competition is expected to be fierce in the opening rounds, yet the pride of finishing as the confederation's champions will surely act as a major incentive as the tournament reaches its conclusion.
Korea Republic will open the defence of their continental title against Jordan on 29 October at Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, but with the Koreans clear favourites to win the group, the focus on which other team will qualify from Group A.. Not surprisingly, hosts India will be cheered on by their vociferous supporters, although, Jordan are expected to stand in their after displaying their remarkable improvements in the preliminary stage by sweeping past Bahrain and Qatar.
Australia will pose a tough test for highly-fancied China in Group B. The Joey's won their qualified for India by defeating Turkmenistan 3-0 and Sri Lanka 4-0 to mark their arrival on the Asian youth football scene. UAE, hosts of the 2003 FIFA Youth World Championship, should not be underestimated as they scored eight goals without reply against Pakistan (6-0) and Yemen (2-0) in the preliminary stage.
Japan look to be the strongest team in Group C as they recently overcame Korea Republic in the final of Qatar Eight-nation Tournament. Indeed, their undefeated campaign in this competition included a memorable 2-1 victory over Germany. However, despite these impressive results, they cannot afford any slips-up against Iran and DPR Korea, while little-known Tajikistan also proved their potential to cause upsets given that they eliminated Uzbekistan in the qualifiers.
Plenty of experience
One interesting aspect of the forthcoming tournament will be comeback of so-called 'experienced' players. Following the footsteps of striker Park Chu-Young, who emerged as the previous AFC tournament's Most Valuable Player and leading scorer, another Korean young gun looks likely to shine brightly in the forthcoming championship in India.
Nineteen-year-old Shin Young-Rok is no new face to this tournament as he played a vital part for Korea Republic two years ago. He also opened the scoring in their 2-1 opening defeat against Switzerland in Netherlands 2005. Having gained further experience and honed his shooting skills, Shin is expected to play a leading role in Cho Dong-Hyun's side.
However, Shin is no exception. Chinese teenager Cui Peng, who scored the winner in their 3-2 victory over Ukraine in Netherlands 2005, has also been called back into Jia Xiuquan's team. He scored in China's 2-1 defeat to Norway in a recent friendly and despite the defeat, Cui has showed that his game is getting better with all the time.
Group A: Korea Republic, India, Kyrgyzstan, Jordan (Calcutta)
Group B: China, UAE, Thailand, Australia (Calcutta)
Group C: Japan, DPR Korea, Iran, Tajikistan (Bangalore)
Group D: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Vietnam (Bangalore)