Quartet sharpen form in regional competition
Korea Republic won a record fifth EAFF title
Japan largely featured U-23 players
A transitional China PR side finished third place
The curtain was recently brought down on the 2019 EAFF E-1 Football Championship with hosts and holders Korea Republic sealing a record fifth title. Having claimed a pair of victories against Hong Kong and China PR, Paulo Bento's side maintained their unstoppable form in Wednesday's decisive match in Busan against Japan with a 1-0 victory.
The narrow defeat to the hosts saw Hajime Moriyasu's Japan finish as runners-up in the round-robin four-nation tournament, having prevailed against Hong Kong and China. In the early match of the closing matchday, China, under interim manager Li Tie, defeated Hong Kong 2-0 in the third-place playoff.
This year's biannual competition, previously known as the EAFF East Asian Cup, took place in a critical time with Asia's second round of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™ just past the midway mark. With the next qualifying matchday kicking off in March, this regional competition provided the coaches with a precious opportunity to take stock of their respective charges.
Korea Republic featured a side mainly consisting of K League players with coach Bento keen on testing new players and formations. Despite missing their European-based stars including Tottenham Hotspur hotshot Son Heungmin, the hosts proved dominant throughout en route to the title. In a sense, the title-winning performances came as a timely boost for Bento's charges who have thus far under performed in the ongoing World Cup qualifying - currently sitting second in a group which features the likes of Korea DPR, Turkmenistan and Lebanon.
It was, however, a different story for Japan who are on the verge of sealing early progression with an unblemished record in the qualifying campaign. The scenarios look so comfortable for the Japanese that coach Moriyasu, tasked with also taking of the fortunes of their Olympic side, could afford to test their young talents by calling up as many as fifteen U-23 players. His strategy paid dividends, with his young squad outmuscling China 2-1 in the opener before routing Hong Kong 5-0, performances that suggested their youngsters enter next summer's 2020 Men's Olympic Football Tournament with high hopes.
China, meanwhile, failed to live up to pre-tournament expectations despite putting in some brave displays. With the absences of captain Zheng Zhi and playmaker Hao Junmin, they were found lacking against both Japan and Korea Republic. Indeed, coach Li is left with a hard task of working against time to make sure they can be competitive in March's qualifiers.
Most EAFF Championship titles:
5: Korea Republic (2003, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2019) 2: China PR (2005, 2010) 1: Japan (2013)
23-year-old Hwang Inbeom emerged as one of the biggest revelations of the young Korea Republic side following his eye-catching displays in an attacking role. Currently plying his trade with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, he proved a constant menace to the Taeguk Warriors' opponents. Notably, Hwang opened the scoring against Hong Kong in his side's first match before grabbing the match- and tournament winning-goal against Japan. Considering the progress he has made, the in-form striker will likely provide Bento with fresh attacking options in the forthcoming qualifiers.
Also drawing attention was Japan’s Tsukasa Morishima, a 22-year-old midfielder who is heralded as one of the most promising stars of Japan. The youngster exploded on the domestic scene in the most recent J.League season, scoring three times and providing seven assists to help Sanfrecce Hiroshima to a sixth-place finish. After receiving his first national team call-up, he repaid coach Moriyasu’s faith in him playing a key attacking role in their campaign, including an assist for Musashi Suzuki's goal against China.