The quarter-finals of the 2022 Arab Cup U-20 take place on Sunday. Two are all-Asian affairs with the other two featuring teams from Africa. It wasn’t planned that way but was produced by a fascinating group stage.
The Saudi Arabian city of Abha is the host of all the games and it is where all 18 teams started out. It is no surprise then that the hosts, defending champions after winning in Egypt last year, were the first to book their spot in the knockout stage thanks to a 2-0 win over Mauritania and a 4-1 dismissal of Iraq. The star of the show and the star of the tournament so far is Abdullah Radif. The Al-Hilal striker currently leads the goalscoring charts with four to his name already as a goal in the opener and then a hat-trick against Iraq.
Coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi led the team to success in 2021 but is taking nothing for granted this time around.
“We have started well but we know that there is a lot of work for us to do,” he said. “The quarter-final is our focus now and we know that is going to be a difficult match for us.”
With only the first of the three teams in each of the six groups guaranteed of going through along with two of the best runners-up, the results and performances were just what Saudi Arabia ordered.
On Sunday, they face Yemen, who squeezed through as one of the best runners-up after finishing second behind Jordan and defeating UAE 3-1. While the Green Falcons are strong favorites, it won’t be a stroll in the park.
“We are delighted to have made it this far and the players were excellent against the United Arab Emirates,” said Yemen coach Mohamed Al-Nafii. “Now we know we have a very difficult game against Saudi Arabia. We know what we have to do and that we have to be at our best.”
There has been a healthy contingent of Yemen fans backing their team so far and against the in-form hosts, the support will be needed and they could be in for plenty of excitement with the players practicing penalties in training.
The winner is going to face another opponent from the Asian Football Confederation as the second quarter-final will see a crunch match between Jordan — who topped Group B with four points after a draw with UAE — and Palestine.
Palestine took the second-best runners-up spot behind Morocco in Group F thanks to a thrilling 5-3 win over Sudan. With seven minutes remaining, the African team were 3-2 ahead to keep alive their dreams of a knockout stage place but were stunned by three goals from Palestine, two of which came in injury time.
The remaining two clashes in the last eight are between the traditional giants of North Africa as all four took maximum points from the two group games.
Algeria take on Tunisia in the first quarter-final. The Desert Foxes defeated Lebanon 2-1 and then needed two goals in the last 20 minutes or so to defeat Libya 3-1 to take top spot. With all five goals coming from different players, Tunisia will be wary though they had it much easier. A clinical 3-0 win over Bahrain was followed by a 6-0 thrashing of Djibouti. Three of the goals came from Aziz Abed who is just one behind Radif in the goalscoring charts.
The last-eight line-up is completed by Egypt and Morocco. The Pharaohs defeated Oman 1-0 and then Somalia 2-0 and their progression to the knockout stages never really looked in doubt. Morocco, meanwhile, had to come from behind in their opener to defeat an exciting Sudan team 4-2 and then had to wait until six minutes from the end to edge out Palestine 1-0.
“The standard in this competition is very strong, especially the African teams and the Saudi team from Asia,” said Egypt coach, Mahmoud Gaber. “We want to keep going until the end and we know that Morocco are very strong and played well in the group stage but we have prepared well for the game.”
There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns before it all ends but one thing is for sure; as well as being all Arab, the final will be a clash between Africa and Asia.