Defending champions Saudi Arabia have been handed a favorable draw in their qualification group for the U-20 Asian Cup in 2023, and while the U-17 team look to have a more difficult path to their continental championships next year, they will also be confident about their prospects.
The draw for qualification for both tournaments took place at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. In order to get a ticket to appear at the U-20 tournament, which will take place in Uzbekistan next year, Saudi Arabia will have to find some of the form that took them to the title back in 2018, when it was an U-19 competition.
That was when the young Green Falcons defeated South Korea 2-1 in the final in Indonesia to be crowned continental champions. It is still their title to defend as the global pandemic ensured that the 2020 edition never took place, though Saudi Arabia had already booked a berth by winning their group in qualification back in November 2019.
Then they just managed to finish above Uzbekistan and have been grouped with the Central Asians once again in Group A, which will take place in September. This time, however, results against the White Wolves will not matter as they are already assured of a place in the tournament as host nation. That means that Saudi Arabia will just have to finish above China, Myanmar and the Maldives to guarantee a spot, though the five best-performing runners-up in the 10 groups will also go through.
It would be a surprise if that did not happen and not least because all the games will be held in the eastern city of Dammam. Playing in front of their own fans in one of the country’s most passionate football cities will be a major advantage. China will be expected to provide the main test but with football going through a terrible time at the moment in the East Asian country, youth tournaments may not be the priority they once were. Chinese Super League clubs are going out of business, the country has given up hosting the 2022 Asian Games and the 2023 Asian Cup, and the future is very uncertain.
With the political situation in Myanmar, there has not been too much football played in recent months, and the young White Angels may be struggling for match fitness. Even when the Southeast Asians are at their best, a trip to Saudi Arabia is tough. And last but not least are the Maldives. The South Asians can be difficult opponents but should be no match for the defending champions, especially on their home patch.
The U-17 tournament, which has been rebranded from the past U-16 championships, will be held much closer to home, in neighboring Bahrain. Once again, the group, this time Group D, will be held in Dammam, and while it looks a little more challenging for the two-time champions, Saudi Arabia will again be strong favorites to progress with the format the same: the 10 group winners go through along with the five best runners-up to join the hosts Bahrain.
The 2020 tournament did not go ahead thanks to the pandemic, but Saudi Arabia had booked their berth before it was called off by finishing above Oman, Pakistan and Syria in September 2019. The cancelation was a bitter pill to swallow for the boys from Riyadh, Jeddah and elsewhere as they had failed to qualify for the 2018 edition, losing out to Jordan.
This group does not look quite so difficult as that. Interestingly, Myanmar and the Maldives are also opponents, and the same points apply to this age category as to the slightly older one. Neither will be expected to finish in the top two spots. India have ambitions in this regard and will relish the chance to test themselves against one of the continent’s big boys but maybe do not quite have the strength in depth to challenge in West Asia. Kuwait may be tricky. After suffering at the hands of Jordan in September 2017, the hosts will be wary of the Blues in October 2022.
But given the opposition, home advantage and where Saudi Arabian football is currently at, both the U-17 and U-20 teams are strongly expected to make it to both Uzbekistan and Bahrain in 2023 and once there, will be expected to challenge for the big prize.