The strong performances of Saudi Arabia’s youth teams continued on Sunday as the Young Falcons qualified for the 2023 Asian U-20 Championships, which will take place in Uzbekistan.
A 1-0 victory over China meant that the side topped Group A with three wins from three games to finish above the Chinese, who also booked their place at the tournament as one of the best runners-up.
It ends a summer of success. The Saudi Arabia Under-23 team were crowned the Asian champions in June with a win against hosts Uzbekistan.
In August, the U-20s lifted the Arab Cup after defeating Egypt in front of a sell-out crowd in Abha, and coach Saleh Al-Mohammadi has built on that achievement and will take the youngsters to Central Asia — where the U-23 team achieved glory — in March, full of confidence.
“It was a tough group, but I am happy that my players came through to win first place and qualify,” Al-Mohammadi said. “The players continued their good work from winning the Arab Cup, and now we can look forward to the next challenges.”
Jordan, Oman, Syria and Qatar also booked their places and will be in Uzbekistan in March, but qualification for Saudi Arabia never really looked in doubt following an 11-0 thrashing of Maldives in the opening game, which took place in the city of Alkhobar. It was followed by a 5-0 dismissal of Myanmar, which meant that, due to superior goal difference heading into the final game, just a draw against China would have been sufficient.
In the end, a goal deep inside first-half stoppage time from defender Mohammed Bakor secured the win to end a fine campaign. The only downside was a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan, but as the game against the tournament hosts, automatically guaranteed a place, did not count in terms of qualification, it was an opportunity for coach Al-Mohammadi to rest some players with games coming every other day.
There is more at stake, however, than playing in the Asian tournament itself. The four teams that reach the semifinals next March will then book their place at the U-20 World Cup, which will be held in Indonesia in May. This is the big prize, a chance for the youngsters to test themselves against the very best from all continents.
Many will be watching the team’s star striker Abdullah Radif. The Al-Hilal front man caught the eye at the Arab Cup in the summer as he finished top scorer with six goals. The 19-year-old has not done too badly in recent weeks either, netting five to continue his prolific record wearing the colors of his country. There are high hopes for the teenager, though he has struggled to get much playing time for the Asian champions with a whole host of talented strikers ahead of him in the Al-Hilal pecking order.
This time he was supported in attack by Meshari Al-Nemer. The Al-Nassr forward contributed four goals, and if the two can continue to click going forward, then there is no reason why Saudi Arabia cannot do well in Uzbekistan and book that World Cup spot.
Equally encouraging is the defense, which has looked tight. In eight competitive games this summer, Saudi Arabia have conceded just twice, in the final of the Arab Cup against Egypt and once in the group stage. The three games in the Asian qualification all ended with clean sheets.
Preparation is now key for the 2023 championships. The young players are going to get precious few minutes in the Saudi Professional League in the coming months, so training camps and as many warm-up games as possible will make a major difference.
Al-Mohammadi has shown that he can organize a defense and can produce a team that makes chances going forward. There will be some tougher tests ahead, but the situation for the U-20 team is looking very good indeed, and bringing the continental trophy back from Tashkent to sit alongside the U-23 prize, which was won in the same city, is possible and would provide further evidence that the future is bright for football in Saudi Arabia.