TASHKENT: Saudi Arabia became Asian U-23 champions on Sunday after defeating hosts Uzbekistan 2-0 in Tashkent, thanks to superb second half-strikes from Ahmed Al-Ghamdi and Firas Al-Buraikan.
It is the first time the young Green Falcons have won the AFC U-23 Asian Cup after final defeats in 2013 and 2020, and it also marks the first major continental trophy for coach Saad Al-Shehri who also lost two continental finals in his career.
Al-Ghamdi gave Saudi Arabia the lead early in the second half with a strike worthy of winning any prize, with Al-Buraikan adding an equally impressive second with 16 minutes remaining.
As the team’s defense had failed to concede a single goal at any time in the tournament, the size of Uzbekistan’s task was apparent as they were going to have to do something that five teams had failed to do this month. Roared on by 34,000 fans at the Milliy Stadium, the men in blue tried their utmost but were unable to find a way past goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi.
While the final minutes were understandably frantic, the opening period was a cagey one with Saudi Arabia keeping the ball well and Uzbekistan looking to break forward quickly when they won possession. The first half was at the midway point before there was any danger of a goal.
It was Saudi Arabia who came close. Hamad Al-Ghamdi, inside the area, got to the byline on the left and pulled the ball back for Al-Buraikan, but the striker’s low shot from close range was well-blocked by Alibek Davronov.
The hosts, with their fans filling the stadium two hours before the kick-off, had their first clear chance after 32 minutes. Hojimat Erginov ran on to a through ball but, from the edge of the area, shot high and wide with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Moments later, Hamad Al-Yami unleashed a powerful shot from 25 meters, which had goalkeeper Vladimir Nazarov scrambling to his left to tip the ball away from his corner.
Then, seven minutes before the break Al-Ghamdi was bundled over by Davranov in the area and the referee pointed to the spot. VAR had a good look and a five-minute wait decided there had been a marginal offside in the build-up.
That episode got the Tashkent temperature rising, but the last action of the first half saw the Saudis almost take the lead. A long ball from inside their half was headed back by Al-Buraikan to Ayman Yahya, whose looping header hit the outside of the post with the goalkeeper scrambling back from no man's land.
Then just three minutes into the second half, Saudi Arabia took the lead in stunning fashion. Al-Yami found Al-Ghamdi on the edge of the area, but the 20-year-old player still had work to do. The Ettifaq man evaded the attentions of two defenders and then fired an unstoppable left-footed shot into the top corner.
Uzbekistan were understandably eager to get back on level terms as soon as possible and, around the hour mark, were starting to push Saudi Arabia more onto the back foot, although the much-vaunted defense held firm. There were some hearts in mouths, however, as the man in form for the Central Asians, Jasurbek Jaloliddinov, almost repeated his spectacular semi-final strike against Japan but his long-range shot just went over the bar.
The hosts had the ball in the net with 20 minutes remaining. Jaloliddinov sent Ruslanbek Jiyanov through on goal and while his low shot from the right across Al-Aqidi beat the goalkeeper, the forward received the ball in a clear offside position.
Soon after, it was 2-0. Uzbekistan had been leaving gaps at the back, but Saudi Arabia couldn’t take advantage until Al-Buraikan scored another memorable goal. The striker was outside the box on the left side and unleashed a deadly shot into the far corner, past Nazarov’s despairing dive.
It knocked the wind out of the hosts’ sails and there was no way back for the 2018 champions, who grew increasingly frustrated. There was a major bust-up toward the end as Uzbekistan felt their opponents were time-wasting, which led to plenty of pushing and even a few water bottles thrown from the stands onto the pitch.
The Young Falcons kept their cool, their eyes on the prize, and soon, in the presence of the president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation Yasser Al-Misehal, had their hands on the trophy for the very first time at the third time of asking.