Japan claimed their first-ever AFC Asian U-19 Championship title after beating Saudi Arabia 5-3 on penalties following a goalless extra-time draw in the final in Bahrain on Sunday. The two finalists join Iran and Vietnam in claiming Asia’s four qualifying spots for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 after they all reached the tournament semi-finals last week.
It was the seventh appearance in the continental final for Japan. Ten years ago at India 2006, the Japanese lost to Korea DPR in a penalty shootout.
The Samurai Blue had the meanest defence at Bahrain 2016, as they kept five clean sheets en route to the final. They opened their campaign with a 3-0 win over Yemen before drawing 0-0 with Iran and earning another 3-0 result - this time against title holders Qatar. Atsushi Uchiyama’s side cruised to a 4-0 victory over Tajikistan in the quarter-finals before netting three unanswered goals against Vietnam in the last four.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, were the highest scoring team of the tournament, with eight goals in the group stage and a further eight goals in the knockout round. Abdulrahman Al Yami, who scored a hat-trick against Iran in the semi-finals, and captain Sami Al Naji finished as the joint top scorers with four goals, while Rakan Al Anaze scored three goals in the competition.
Arguably the most thrilling match of the tournament was played out by Iran and Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. Saudi captain Al Naji opened the scoring from the spot in the 18th minute before setting up Ayman Al Khulaif to double the lead. The Iranians immediately pulled one back through Reza Jafari, but Al Yami restored his side's two-goal lead before Aref Aghasi fired home to make it 3-2 to the Saudis at half-time.
Al Naji added his second of the match right after the restart, but Reza Shekari responded with an opportunistic strike as the Iranians clawed their way back into the match. However, there was no stopping Al Yami, who completed his hat-trick with two goals midway through the second half, while Iran could only fight back with late goals from Mehdi Mehdikhani and substitute Reza Karmollachaab.
History in the making, surprises aplenty
Vietnam were the surprise packages of the tournament. They got off to a flying start with a 2-1 win over Korea DPR before earning a hard-fought 1-1 draw with United Arab Emirates, despite being down to ten men for more than half an hour after their inspirational captain Nguyen Trong Dai was sent off for a second bookable offence. They then went on to hold Iraq to a goalless draw to finish runners-up in Group B. The historical moment for the Southeast Asian nation came in the second half of the quarter-final against hosts Bahrain, as forward Tran Thanh secured his country place in their first-ever U-20 World Cup.
In contrast, none of the teams that represented Asia at the previous edition of the U-20 World Cup - Korea DPR, Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Qatar - managed to qualify for next year’s finals. Even the hosts and 12-time Asian champions Korea Republic failed to progress beyond the group stage, whereas the North Koreans suffered three straight defeats in their group. Myanmar failed to make the Asian finals this time around, while defending champions Qatar were dethroned by Japan in their final group match.
Having stunned the rest of the world at New Zealand 2015 by reaching the quarter-finals, the Uzbeks were the only side among the aforementioned quartet to have survived the group stage in Bahrain. But their impressive showing, including a 3-2 win over favourites Australia, came to an abrupt end after a 2-0 defeat to Iran in the last eight.